4 min read

Data Driven Prioritisation: WSJF or Low Hanging Fruit?

Bonnie Beyer
Bonnie Beyer
18 May 2021 Agile
WSJF or Low Hanging Fruit?

How is work prioritised at your company? Highest up exec in the room? Loudest voice? Politics? Or is it based on customer needs and market opportunities?  Poor prioritisation can hold a company back from true transformation as a value delivery organisation. 

When trying to rank features and initiatives in a backlog of work and ideas, it can become glaringly obvious that consensus on priorities is only possible when power and emotion is removed from the equation. After all, when was the last time everyone on a group project agreed on everything?

To break this mould, I recommend giving Weighted Shortest Job First (WSJF) a chance (or another chance), even if you aren't following a scaled agile methodology. WSJF is a mathematical expression of the relative values of a set of variables, providing data driven prioritisation free from emotion and power. The variables are User-Business Value, Time Criticality, Risk Reduction and/or Opportunity Enablement, and Duration /Job Size.

But WSJF is hard!  No, not really. We do it in our lives naturally, but we don't necessarily recognise it. Don't believe me? Consider some typical housework chores:

  • Making the bed 🛏
  • Spring cleaning 🧹

Why do I make my bed every day but I put off whole house spring cleaning to when I have a big party planned? WSJF! Making the bed only takes a few minutes, but it immediately improves how the bedroom looks. The spring cleaning is so much more work, and the value is lower on any regular day. Results may vary on your level of OCD!

Isn't that just low hanging fruit? Yes, it is. And low hanging fruit isn't necessarily bad. Low effort and some amount of value are the variables of the low hanging fruit analogy. But let's take it a little further. Consider two trees. Which one will you harvest first? Why?

If the apples sell at higher price, you'd probably decide that's the proper low hanging fruit to grab. Does your answer change if you learn that the bananas are going to drop and rot very soon but the apples can wait? If we assume equal effort for the harvests, then we are comparing value and time-sensitivity to make our decision.

Next, let's consider these two trees. Let's pretend they are equally valuable. 😉

But seriously, the value is based on the individual.  If you are needing wine for the wedding party you are hosting this weekend, the wine tree will be your pick.  Customer value and time-sensitivity are part of the decision.  However, if you are wanting to learn how to make wine to start a business, then the grape trees may be higher value.  That represents opportunity enablement.

That's all fine and good, but we work on complex things at our company. This is apples to our oranges! (See what I did there?)

Prioritizing complex things is exactly what WSJF is used for. It allows you to consider all of the types of work that are required, not just for the end customer products, but what is expected from them.  Security, support, infrastructure, quality, innovation, etc. WSJF is a mathematical expression of the relative values of a set of variables, providing data driven prioritization free from emotion and power. The variables are:

  • User-Business Value - Value to customer or business, user preferences, revenue impacts, penalties, etc
  • Time Criticality - Deadlines or milestone commitments, critical path items, market timing impacts
  • Risk Reduction and/or Opportunity Enablement - Reduce or mitigate known risks or enabling new opportunities
  • Duration / Job size

The sum of the first three is defined as the Cost of Delay.  If you delay work on the feature, these are what you are losing, at least for this planning cycle.  And so, the formula is:

A successful consensus building workshop will be attended by all of the leaders and key subject matter experts. It will be well facilitated to stay on task and engaged. The instructions in the figure from the WSJF article from Scaled Agile, Inc. are actually quite important for this to be successful, especially the one about doing one column at a time, not one row at a time.

  • Select around 5 features or initiatives, preferably no more than 10. 
  • Start with the job size column first. If it turns out that the job size for one of the items can't be relatively sized as 20 or less, then it needs to be broken down before going further.  
  • The group needs to select a 1 in each column and then relative rank them from 1 to 20 using the modified fibonacci sequence (1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 20).  You can have multiple 1's or other values.  
  • Ask the attendees to try not to game the system by doing the math in their heads, but to instead stay in the relative valuation discussions. 

After the WSJF values are calculated, there may be some surprises, and there can be discussion.  This is data driven guidance based on subjective data.  It isn't law, but is instead intended to provide information and a way to think about the decisions to be made.  There should be one final decision maker in the room who can approve changes to the priority ranking.  

Using WSJF as a facilitation activity in agile organisations is popular, but it can be used regardless of what methodologies your teams are following. It can be used in all types of work activity, including Human Resources, Marketing, and Infrastructure organisations. You might find it so easy to take emotions out of decisions, you'll propose it to your PTA planning next year! (I wonder how well the coupon book sales fundraiser would do in WSJF compared to candy bar sales...)

Got a question about WSJF or a more general agile transformation query? Get in touch, we'd love to hear from you.


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