Product Backlog Prioritization With Multiple Key Stakeholders: A Case Study | Toptal® (2023)

Backlog prioritization is a key component of agile product development. However, it can get overwhelming when there are multiple stakeholders: They all make requests independent of one another and asynchronously, while the product manager spends long hours in one-on-one meetings, negotiating with them over what items will make it into the next sprint. The result is often wasted time and resources.

To bridge this division and save time, the best solution is a prioritization workshop that enables them to come to a consensus on the relative priority of their requests. In this intensive session, all the stakeholders can work together to agree on a plan that charts the path forward.

The Problem

Let’s consider a common scenario. A company’s product team found itself in a problematic situation with the company’s flagship product. The development team and the architects had set a challenging goal to move the product to a cloud-based platform. However, progress was very slow because developers were busy with product feature enhancements and bug fixes. There was a great deal of technical debt to pay down, which stifled the team’s ability to make improvements and proceed with their planned sprints. At the same time, the stakeholders, who were all account managers and worked directly with end users, continued to request feature enhancements to satisfy the customers they represented. Although stakeholders were aware that the development team pulled items from the backlog only when they became available, stakeholders still felt abandoned and ignored. Lead time was high for any request that was not an emergency, and firefighting was all too common. On top of that, stakeholders’ requests regularly were in conflict.

Stakeholders were unhappy and felt like their requests mostly went into a black hole. Their customers were frustrated with how long it took to address simple bug reports and for their requested enhancements to be delivered. As a result, the development team felt like it was being pulled in many directions and simply could not make the technical improvements to enable a faster cycle and lead time to keep up with stakeholder and user needs. The development team needed direction about where to focus its energy, how to balance tech debt against new requests, and how to prioritize the work.

The product owner decided to put everyone in one room and see what happened.

Selling the Workshop to Stakeholders

The first step is to gain buy-in from the stakeholders. In this case, the product owner approached the stakeholders’ manager and explained the benefits of the proposed workshop. He communicated that the goal was to prioritize the backlog items in an order that all stakeholders could agree upon. These were the selling points:

  • Saving time
  • Driving collaboration
  • Aligning communication so that everyone hears the same information and leaves with a common understanding of what the development team will deliver next
  • Giving stakeholders a forum where they can speak and be heard

Providing stakeholders with a structured, facilitated forum in which they can express their needs and align with one another empowers them and gives them a better understanding of the entirety of what goes into building a great product. In my own work, I found that my stakeholders were far more likely to notify me of a request, provide details, and answer my questions after I hosted several product backlog prioritization workshops.

How to Run a Workshop

The workshop’s ability to achieve its objectives is heavily influenced by who is in the room. Make sure you invite all relevant experts:

  • Key stakeholders of the product: account managers, account director, customer service manager, etc.
  • Product manager (or product owner)
  • Scrum master
  • Subject matter experts

Be sure to send out a detailed agenda ahead of time explaining what will be discussed and when. This will provide the stakeholders with an opportunity to ask questions or make suggestions beforehand and keep everyone focused during the meeting.

How to Prepare the Room

Before the participants arrive, prepare the meeting room so that participants can dive right into the workshop exercises. First, you will have to present the product backlog items on the wall—print out the backlog items or write them down on index cards.

Product Backlog Prioritization With Multiple Key Stakeholders: A Case Study | Toptal® (1)

These cards represent the features and improvements that your team plans to implement in the near future. Tape them on the meeting room’s wall and arrange them in the current backlog order—from highest priority at one end to the lowest priority at the other. Be prepared to display more detailed request descriptions and additional details on the projector or TV screen.

Roles of Participants

The product manager is the main facilitator for the exercises, monitoring the time and guiding prioritization by providing context from the product vision. Product managers should avoid getting involved in the discussions and let the stakeholders drive the priority-setting. After the stakeholders agree upon a decision, a product manager can still move backlog items as needed to accommodate other priorities that arise over time. Product managers retain their decision-making power over the backlog, but this exercise helps them to gather information to make future priority decisions.

If a scrum master attends the workshop, ask them to note participants’ feedback on the exercise itself while you are facilitating the event—it will be helpful for future improvements. Subject matter experts participate in the workshop to provide context and additional information for stakeholders.

How to Facilitate Prioritization

Prioritization can be handled in two stages.

In the first prioritizing stage, encourage the participants to decide what items are not critical. Putting the low-priority items aside will allow the group to spend its valuable time on higher-priority items. If there is still no consensus, a product manager should suggest setting the item aside for a more in-depth discussion.

During the second prioritizing stage, a great method for helping people reach an agreement is to utilize the Effort Impact Matrix—a simple yet powerful tool for facilitating a group conversation that clarifies priorities. Items that require the lowest effort for the highest impact rise to the top of the list, and items that require greater effort but will have a lower impact sink to the bottom. You can find several variations of this technique and how to improve it.

Product Backlog Prioritization With Multiple Key Stakeholders: A Case Study | Toptal® (2)

If stakeholders keep moving a backlog item back and forth with no consensus, the product manager should have the final say on its priority.

Before closing the meeting, the product manager should check in with the participants and ask for their final thoughts. After they leave, make sure to number or code the agreed-upon requests so that you can easily transfer them to the product management product backlog tool—start with one as the highest priority.

Continuously Improve the Workshop

The product backlog workshop should be a regular meeting in your Scrum cycle, and it can fit into a Kanban team’s ceremonies. If you can conduct this exercise mid-sprint in a Scrum cycle, you will receive stakeholders’ priorities ahead of sprint planning. For a Kanban team, the workshop could be conducted weekly or in whatever cadence is best to realign a roadmap to prioritize the Kanban list.

For my team, having a prioritization workshop every three weeks was sufficient to refresh the backlog’s priorities. Finding the right cadence is critical for the workshop’s success—make sure you find the fine line between participants’ needs and actual demand. Check in regularly with participants about whether the current frequency meets their needs.

Also, create a channel for participants to provide feedback on the workshop. Having a dedicated person to take notes about future improvements to the workshop is helpful—a scrum master can fill this role perfectly. Document the workshop’s improvements to show your dedication to achieving a smoother experience.

Regularly employing a dedicated workshop for backlog prioritization can benefit a company on several different levels. Product managers can use their time and resources more effectively and efficiently. The company can be more agile and achieve better results faster. Asking stakeholders to participate early on can be an incredibly powerful tool to gain their support for product initiatives and get valuable feedback. Executives could also use this workshop to evaluate priorities on a tactical and strategic level in order to advance employees’ alignment with the company’s goals, team processes, and overall communication.

Understanding the basics

  • What is the difference between product backlog and sprint backlog?

    The difference between a product backlog and a sprint backlog is the urgency of their implementation: The sprint backlog is used by the Scrum team to develop the most urgent items in the upcoming sprint(s), while the product backlog is a long-term master list of features, some of which might never reach the implementation stage.

  • Why is a product backlog important?

    A product backlog is important because it lays out all the product’s potential features in one place so the development team can see them; it can also be used to set the expectations of product stakeholders.

  • Who creates a backlog?

    The product manager is responsible for creating, prioritizing, and maintaining a product backlog. Requests for backlog items come from various sources: sales, the QA team, customer support, and product stakeholders.

  • Who prioritizes a backlog?

    A product manager prioritizes the backlog and defines product direction. There are many sources for backlog requests, but often, they come from product stakeholders. Product managers have to find a consensus among stakeholders with sometimes conflicting requests, and a backlog prioritization workshop is the best way to do it.

  • What is a good product backlog?

    A good product backlog is a well-prioritized plan that converts a high-level vision into the working details of creating a product.


What is the best order of prioritization of a product backlog? ›

One of the most common methods of prioritizing the product backlog is stack ranking. Stack ranking is done by sorting each task by priority. In this way, the task with the most critical functionalities is set at the highest rank, followed by the next set of important tasks.

What are the 4 buckets in ranking for product backlog prioritization? ›

Must-have, should-have, could-have, and won't-have are the buckets used to prioritize a backlog with the MoSCoW technique. The product team defines these designations based on the product's unique features and competitive offerings.

How do you Prioritise backlog with stakeholders? ›

By defining criteria for prioritization, selecting a framework to work within, focusing on the long-term product strategy, saying “no” to some requests, considering dependencies, and communicating with stakeholders, product managers can quickly and effectively prioritize their backlog and ensure that the most important ...

How do you prioritize requirements from multiple stakeholders? ›

The simplest method is for a group of stakeholders to work down a list of requirements and decide for each if it's in or it's out. Refer to the project's business objectives to make this judgment, paring the list down to the bare minimum needed for the first iteration or release.

What is the formula for backlog prioritization? ›

Your final priority score is calculated as: Value/Effort *10; the higher the score, the better but keep in mind that your score isn't everything. You can also use a value vs. effort priority matrix to visualize your key priorities by placing 'value' on the x axis, and 'effort' on the y axis.

Which of the following factors must be used to prioritize a product backlog? ›

The Influencing Factors For Prioritizing Product Backlog Items:
  • Customer Satisfaction.
  • Business Value.
  • Complexity.
  • Risk & Opportunity.
  • Cost.

What is the product backlog in 3 5 3 of Scrum? ›

Product Backlog

The product owner's or product manager's backlog is the master list of work that needs to be completed. This is a complex list of functions, specifications, updates, and fixes that serves as the sprint backlog's input. It is, in essence, the team's "To Do" list.

How the Scrum teams prioritize the product backlog? ›

In doing so, they expand each Scrum product backlog item into one or more sprint backlog tasks so they can more effectively share work during the sprint. Conceptually, the team starts at the top of the prioritized Scrum backlog and draws a line after the lowest of the high-priority items they feel they can complete.

What are the three prioritization methods? ›

They've built great things, and built even greater prioritization frameworks! Here, we'll show you the top three methods that all Product Managers should know; MoSCow, RICE, and Kano. We'll then show you some A+ advice on the prioritization process of top Product People.

How do you manage conflicting priorities from multiple stakeholders? ›

  1. Set the ground rules early. ...
  2. Prioritize interdepartmental communication. ...
  3. Act as a liaison between the executive team and those on the front line. ...
  4. List the competing priorities. ...
  5. Encourage open dialogue. ...
  6. Empower the project head to balance priorities. ...
  7. Focus on customer needs. ...
  8. Take an outside-in approach.
Jan 13, 2021

What is an example of prioritizing stakeholders? ›

Stakeholder prioritization will also vary based on time and circumstance. For example, a large retailer facing aggressive new competitors must prioritize customer service and value.

Which three criteria should you consider when prioritizing stakeholders? ›

Table 3.
CriteriaScoring Questions
Level of interestHas the group demonstrated interest in the outcome of the process?
Level of influenceDoes this group have the ability to alter any decisions made?
Magnitude of impactCould this group be significantly impacted by the process?
7 more rows
Jan 5, 2021

How do you balance the needs of multiple stakeholders? ›

It involves identifying who the stakeholders are and what they want. It also includes making sure that the interests of each stakeholder are mutually consistent and tracking how your efforts to balance these interests affect business performance.

How do you prioritize features with stakeholders? ›

To prioritize product features, you'd first have to align internal stakeholders and executives around your short-term goals and sell them how this aligns with the overall product strategy. Convey how some of your actions now might unblock future feature development.

What is the order of product backlog? ›

Who Can Order the Items in the Product Backlog? The product owner can order the items in the product backlog. The product owner is often responsible for prioritizing items in the backlog and ordering them accordingly. The scrum team determines how to implement those items and what to do with those items.

What is the order of prioritization? ›

FIFO - First In, First Out

This acronym speaks for itself and is in fact the most popular method of order management. It means exactly that the highest priority is given to those products that were ordered first, and the whole subsequent mechanism follows this order.

What should an order of the product backlog items be based on ____? ›

Q #2) Product Backlog should be ordered on the basis of? Product Backlog is ordered on the basis of the value they provide to the business. The value may be influenced by several other factors like risk, complexity, and criticality but are not the direct basis for calculating the Value.

What is the order of items in the product backlog? ›

Product Backlog Items (PBIs) are usually sorted by value, risk, priority, and necessity. It is a sequence of highest to lowest priority, with each entry having a unique order. Product to-do list entries at the top need to be developed immediately.


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