WSJF COVID-19. Backlog or Portfolio Prioritisation Method in Times of International Crises.

by Stephanie Gasche and Sebastian Friedsam

These times are unprecedented. COVID-19 has closed down entire countries and sent millions of people into home office, forced holidays or unemployment, thus transforming our lives almost over night. While we have thousands of specialists now focusing on mobile working, home schooling and video conferencing, there’s very few discussing the impact of this global pandemic on companies’ portfolio management. Even less so on how to deal with this situation as a Product Owner, Product Manager, Portfolio Manager, Start-Up founder or even Board of Directors. However, all companies are now hit with the hard task of re-prioritising.

This is where we come in. We are both Agile Coaches (Sebastian in Switzerland, Stephanie in Austria) and rather enthusiastic about the Weighted Shortest Job First (WSJF) Prioritisation Method when it comes to prioritising product backlogs on a team as well as a scaled level. However, different times call for different measures. Thus, this article will teach you how to use WSJF for your backlog not only in times of economic prosperity, but also with our adapted version “WSJF COVID-19” in times of unforeseen international crises. Just like any other backlog prioritisation method, you should consider this as food for thought that can help you navigate through this crisis. This is not the perfect recipe that will surely save your company.

What is the WSJF Prioritisation Method?

WSJF stands for Weighted Shortest Job First and is a prioritisation method used in the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe). The idea of WJSF is to prioritise your backlog items according to this formula:

The concept of Cost of Delay (by Don Reinertsen) is used to trigger a change in perspective when thinking about prioritisation – what could or will we lose if we do not produce product / feature / service X now?! This question uncovers certain indicators that are otherwise often forgotten i.e. urgency and risk reducing measures. This is the formula of Cost of Delay:

Now how do we get to a prioritised list of features?

The Job Size should be estimated by the Development Team by using Story Points and placing the features or backlog items in relation to each other. 

The Cost of Delay is best defined in a workshop including stakeholders such as Sales, Product Management and other subject area experts. During the workshop, all backlog items are placed in relation to each other on a Fibonacci scale using Magic Estimation. In our prioritisation workshops, we love using Sebastian’s favourite examples as food for thought:

  • User Business Value: “How much money will your company make in the first three months of releasing this new feature, service or product?”
  • Time Criticality: “Would a faster time-to-market provide us with a critical advantage in comparison to our competitors? How vital is speed?” i.e. Apple launching the first iPad – despite its minimal features, they were the first. Or the difference for games being released before or after major holidays. 
  • Risk Reduction / Opportunity Enablement: Would i.e. a certain technology enable us to enter a new market, launch new products or provide us with a new distribution channel? i.e. 5G

Use these examples to get the attendees aligned and ready to start. We often use them to get the discussions going (hint: this is the whole point of the exercise!), as we do not want to lose ourselves in discussions such as „what exactly does everyone mean by User Business Value“. This is an intended simplification, that can be deepened as the maturity of the group and their understanding for prioritisation evolves. User Business Value should – with more maturity – include UX, Journey Flow, NPS and other indicators for value. The same, of course, applies to Time Criticality, Risk Reduction and Opportunity Enablement.

Make sure that all stakeholders agree on which backlog item can be defined as having or being the least and place that on the 1 on the Fibonacci Scale. The rest of the backlog items should then be added to the scale in relation to each other by using Magic Estimation.

That is WSJF as we know it and as SAFe intended it. Now let us look at WSJF COVID-19 and see the difference.

Which elements of the WSJF Prioritisation Method need to be adapted due to COVID-19?

  • During a crisis, it is most important to ensure that the core of the business is not put into unnecessary danger. Thus, Risk Reduction becomes even more vital.
  • Every crisis changes the status quo and thus gives space to new ideas and opportunities. Therefore, Opportunity Enablement becomes more vital, too.
  • Solidarity – the act of looking after one another especially in times of crisis – suddenly becomes a factor, as numerous companies are probably going bankrupt while you are reading this. 
  • As peoples’ spending behaviours have drastically changed – depending on your sector – you might want to consider leaving User Business Value out of the formula entirely.

What does the adapted formula for “WSJF COVID-19” look like?

WSJF COVID-19 = (TC + RR + OE + SOL) / JS 

How exactly do I evaluate Risk Reduction?

During an international crisis, the definition of risk changes. Whereas most companies will probably think of the technological risks, we now have to also think about the economic risk on a systemic level and thus include our partners and suppliers. For example:

What would pay into High Risk Reduction?

  • Technologically:
    • Does this feature or enabler improve the robustness of the system / product / service?
    • Ease of removing the feature from production if something goes wrong (mean time to recovery).
  • People:
    • Will this feature be developed by external partners or suppliers that may go bankrupt or send their employees into short-time work, thus making them unavailable in future? How important is the know-how of the partners and suppliers that are contributing to this feature to the future sustainability of our product or company?
    • Risk of unavailability of the needed people due to increased risk of illness?

What is meant by Solidarity from a business perspective?

Agile and Lean are both based on certain values and principles that focus on the importance of human collaboration and sustainability. The idea is that if you are working for a large company or have enough financial resources to outlast this crisis, it may be your social responsibility to co-finance those that cannot. 

Where would High Solidarity be needed?

  • Will this feature be developed by suppliers that you consider your partner, yet may go bankrupt during the crisis 
    • due to their small size 
    • or their dependency on you as the biggest client or chunk of their revenue volume?

What about you? Do you see other factors that need to be considered when having to re-prioritise your backlog?

How do I use this WSJF COVID-19 Prioritisation Method?

As a Product Owner, use this method to reassess the prioritisation of your product backlog:

  • Organise a (virtual) re-prioritisation workshop similar to what we explained above.
  • Make sure to involve your stakeholders. These may have changed in the past few days and weeks. Consider consulting your system architects, procurement and your management when making best guesses on the factors of Risk Reduction or Solidarity.
  • Place the four different calculation methods next to each other and compare the results. This transparency will provide you with a more holistic approach to re-prioritising your backlog on a product level. If you have a very large backlog, consider focusing on the collective functionality rather than every single product backlog item.
WSJF COVID-19 Formula

As a Product Owner in an enterprise environment

  • make sure to enter the realm of Business Agility by using this WSJF COVID-19 Prioritisation Method to prioritise features on a programme or portfolio level together with your Product Owner colleagues and Portfolio Management. 
  • Only then will you be able to distribute the most important features or feature enablers onto different team backlogs and thus ensure that your company as a whole is working on the most appropriate features or feature enablers during this crisis.

As you might have observed, we still included the standard WSJF formula in our calculation table. After all, we want you to use this idea of WSJF COVID-19 to create transparency around the different results in prioritisation for you to have better discussions with your stakeholders. If i.e. User Business Value is more than short term revenues to you, then please include it in your prioritisation calculations. Make sure to change the formula so that it fits your needs. 

We hope this inspires and helps you. As always in Agile product development, please consider this as the result of our first iteration. Feel free to adapt and try it out as you see fit. We would love your input and feedback!

Enjoy experimenting and stay healthy,

Stephy (Gasche Consulting) & Sebastian (Agile Minds)

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