One of the important tasks of a product owner is to prioritize the backlog to deliver value. To cite the Scrum Guide “The product owner is the sole person responsible for managing the Product Backlog.” In order to be able to prioritize, the product owner must first have insight into the backlog. In one article  by Venkatesh Krishnamurthy, six popular techniques were discussed to prioritize the backlog. One of the most used technique is the Business Value Based prioritization. This is also the technique I usually advise product owners to use to prioritize their backlog.
However, recently, I have noticed that product owners are having trouble using this method. Especially in DevOps teams and if product owners have to innovate on existing systems, they start to loose overview. Moreover, product owners also start to lose goodwill from the Scrum team because the product owner tends to only focus on business value. The focus on Business Value Based prioritization usually ends with innovation over technical dept. In this article, I will discuss a technique which will help you as a product owner to come closer to the team members and keep the focus on what is important for now and for the future.
The priority quadrant shows who will benefit from a change and if it is a visible change. A change can have two different actors. The first one is the customer, changes we do because our customers benefit from it. In more technical teams, customers can also be other teams or departments. The other actor is our own organization. Sometimes we make changes because we, as an organization, benefit from it.
The other part of the quadrant is the visibility. A change is either a visible change like adding a new feature, or a change is not visible, e.g. nobody sees any difference once the change is implemented.
Visible – Customer: This category is the innovation category. These are usually the items on the backlog which start with “as a <user> I want <functionality> so that <I achieve something>.”
Visible – Company: these are tasks we do not primarily do for the benefit of our customers. These are improvements and changes we have in the backlog from which our own company benefits. For example, improvements in internal processes or IT-cost reductions. If we migrate systems, then we primarily benefit from it because we can then end one application and save on the maintenance costs.
Not visible – Customer: These items on the backlog represent items that we should have taken care of earlier, like bug fixing, security items, upgrades, etc.
Not visible – Company: these are the real hot topics that Scrum teams deal with. These are usually the activities which always get less priority on the backlog. These tend to be the less sexy topics such as dealing with technical debt and patching.
Once you as a product owner understand these quadrants, it is important to be transparent about it. As a product owner, you should make your backlog transparent. You should also discuss it with the team and your stakeholders and find a percentage of each quadrant that should be represented in the backlog or in the Sprint. This technique, of course, also works well in combination with the Business Value Based prioritization.
I’m curious if this technique helps you to find mutual understanding between the team and your stakeholders.