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MoSCoW Prioritization Model

By Dan Collins

Updated: June 20th, 2023

Reviewed by: Megan Saker

Fact checked by: Janna Bastow

What is the MoSCoW prioritization model?

The MoSCoW prioritization method is a framework used in agile project management, software development, and product management. MoSCoW stands for Must Have, Should Have, Could Have, and Won’t Have, representing the four categories to which the project requirements or product features are assigned.

It is a method of prioritizing each requirement or feature based on its level of importance and urgency to the project and separating them into the following categories:

  • M – “Must Have” – critical and essential for project success
  • S – “Should Have” – important but not crucial
  • C – “Could Have” – desirable but not necessary
  • W – “Won’t Have” – not important for this project

If you’re wondering where the ‘o’s come in, they are just there to make the acronym pronounceable.

You can use the MoSCoW prioritization technique to identify and prioritize the most important requirements for the project’s success and ensure that you allocate your teams’ time and resources appropriately. The MoSCoW method also helps to manage stakeholder expectations and provides a clear understanding of project objectives.

MoSCoW was developed by Dai Clegg in 1994 while he was working for Oracle. It is part of the Dynamic Systems Development Method approach, and is one of the earliest agile prioritization frameworks. While MoSCoW can still have its uses today, it is more effective as a project management tool rather than for use as a product management framework.

How does MoSCoW prioritization work?

The MoSCoW model works by categorizing requirements and tasks in a project based on their importance and urgency.

By placing each element into one of the four prioritization categories, you can focus on delivering the most critical and essential requirements while balancing the competing demands for time, resources, and budget.

Must Have

These are non-negotiable priorities that are indispensable for completing a project successfully, so identifying these features is crucial. Understanding the business and consumer benefits and project objectives will help you to pick these high-priority initiatives for your next product release window.

Must Haves are the foundation upon which all other features will be added. Without them, the project might not succeed. Not implementing a Must Have feature can cause you serious problems, such as failing to meet project requirements or leaving key stakeholders dissatisfied.

Should Have

These are initiatives or features that are not necessarily critical for the success of the project. However they are still important for achieving your objectives.

Should Haves are flexible and you can postpone them until future releases if necessary. This allows your teams to focus on Must Haves and deliver the project on time. Even so, Should Haves can still add significant business value and so you shouldn’t disregard them.

Prioritizing these initiatives can create an edge in competitive markets, enhance user experience, improve product quality, or increase customer engagement.

For example, adding social media integration to a product may not be a Must Have, but it can certainly improve the overall user experience and help to drive customer engagement.

Could Have

This refers to features or enhancements that are not essential but add value to a product. They are desirable or optional features that provide additional benefits to the users. Implementing these features is not a priority, but doing so can provide a competitive advantage in the market.

Should Have features are just below Must Haves in terms of importance to the success of the product. Meanwhile, Could Have features might enhance the overall user experience or provide additional benefits, but they aren’t going to be missed by your users if you don’t add them to your next release.

Won’t Have

Sometimes referred to as ‘Won’t Have (this time)’. These features are explicitly excluded from the current project scope, but might be considered for future releases

To determine if a feature should be listed as Won’t Have, product managers and teams should ask themselves several questions, including:

  • Is the feature non-essential in meeting product objectives and quantifiable value?
  • Is the feature feasible from a technological standpoint within the given timeline and budget?
  • Would the inclusion of the feature delay the product’s release or compromise its quality?

If the answer to any of these questions is “Yes,” you should categorize it as a Won’t Have.

It might seem counter-intuitive to list features that you’re not going to be working on. However, including Won’t Have features as part of your prioritization process can be helpful in a few ways.

It enables teams to recognize which features are necessary for the product’s success, improving overall productivity. It also allows teams to shape future priorities and better understand which features they can implement now and later on. This can help them to make informed decisions that align with your business goals.

It also provides a clear feature list that can be used as a reference for future projects, while ensuring that features that are not essential to meeting objectives are not included in the development process.

An image demonstrating the four categories of the MoSCoW prioritization model.

Benefits of using MoSCoW prioritization

MoSCoW prioritization offers some benefits to agile project managers, product teams, and development teams.

By categorizing potential features or project requirement, teams can quickly prioritize the essential and non-essential components of their project or product. This can save time and help to streamline the decision-making process.

Effective communication is vital during development. When used properly MoSCoW analysis encourages this by involving the entire team in the prioritization process. This helps to keep everyone focused on the same goals.

The MoSCoW method also helps teams maintain focus by forcing them to prioritize the features that are critical to project or product success.

It can also help to prevent scope creep by placing low-priority features into the Won’t Have category. You can demonstrate to your teams and stakeholders that you are aware of product feature ideas, without necessarily working on them for this release window.

Drawbacks of using MoSCoW prioritization

While MoSCoW prioritization can be a valuable tool in project management, it does come with some drawbacks, especially in a product management context.

One major downside is that MoSCoW works by just breaking up your to-do list into four different priority buckets. While this helps with organizing the categories by importance, it doesn’t give you any method for determining priorities within those new lists.

If you solely rely on the MoSCoW method for prioritizing your tasks, you could unintentionally ignore critical dependencies and the interrelationship between various project elements. This may result in the selection of secondary priority tasks over essential ones, leading to delays and rework.

Also, there is a potential risk of disregarding what could turn out to be essential features when assigning the categories. This can lead to conflicts among stakeholders, particularly when their priorities differ.

For example, the product team may prioritize features that enhance user experience, while the development team may prioritize features that make their work more efficient. If both teams cannot reach a common understanding, their disagreement could impact project execution and the delivery timescale.

10 tips for using the MoSCoW prioritization model

  1. The MoSCoW model doesn’t provide a method for prioritizing within each category, so if you want to use it you will need to apply another prioritization framework to determine which Must Have to work on first.
  2. One method for establishing what goes in which category is to start with everything as a Won’t Have, and then show why each feature should be given a higher priority.
  3. When trying to pick out Must Haves, ask what would be the consequences would be if you didn’t include each feature in the project. If there is no point in continuing without it, then it’s a Must Have. If there is any way of carrying on or working around it, then it’s at most a Should Have.
  4. If it’s not possible to proceed without a Must Have feature, then you should consider pausing the project until it can be implemented. Alternatively, a simpler alternative may exist, but you need to ensure it meets the same requirements as your original solution.
  5. Teams should involve as many stakeholders as possible in the prioritization process, including project managers, product managers and owners, developers, and customers. By involving a wide range of viewpoints, teams can align their priorities, manage expectations, and avoid conflicts that can derail the project.
  6. Try to not spend too much time analyzing each requirement or feature to avoid analysis paralysis, which can slow down the project. Instead, focus on getting a sense of the priority level and move on to the next task.
  7. Teams should stay flexible when using the MoSCoW prioritization method. Priorities can change as the project progresses, and teams need to be ready to adjust their priorities accordingly. For example, some Could Have or Won’t Have items may become Must Have as they become more critical to the project’s success over time.
  8. Determining the entire project’s Must Haves can help you to establish the outline for your Minimum Viable Product (MVP). This can be a valuable part of the discovery process.
  9. You should consider dependencies when picking which category something fits into. Must Haves can only depend on other Must Haves – if they rely on a lower priority feature, they run the risk of not being delivered.
  10. You can break the same requirement or feature into different acceptance criteria and then place them into different categories. For example, you could have a Must Have response time to customer tickets of 24 hours, a Should Have response time of six hours, and a Could Have of 10 minutes.