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MoSCoW analysis

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When you have a lot of alternatives from which you have to make a choice, then MoSCoW analysis is a simple tool to help sort the wheat from the chaff as you prioritise the important from the less important. This is useful both in business planning and also in negotiations where you need to be sure you know what you really want and what you are prepared to trade for other benefits.


The four prioritisation categories align to the four capital letter in MoSCoW.



Items assigned to ‘Must’ are those that are essential. In a project, without these the project will fail to meet its primary objectives. In a negotiation, without these you will walk away and the negotiation will fail.


A trap with ‘Musts’ is to try to put everything there. In particular where a number of people are prioritising together, individuals may compete with one another to get the majority of their individual needs accepted. To counteract this, a strong process of review and challenge should be included to ensure that what is allocated as a ‘must’ is truly necessary.


Just down from the ‘Must’, items allocated to ‘Should’ have a strong concern attached to them and are sometimes called ‘Wants’. The difference between a ‘Should’ and a ‘Must’ is that, whilst ‘Shoulds’ are highly desirable, the project or negotiation would not fail if they were not achieved.


|In the final selection process after allocation, it is normal that quite a number of ‘Shoulds’ are included. If you have a process that only selects ‘Musts’ to carry forward then all you really have is a ‘yes/no’ process and should not pretend to still be considering other items.


Below ‘Should’ is ‘Could’. These items are ‘nice to have’ and are less likely again to reach the end, yet it is still normal for a few to get through, again because this is a choice process not a black-and-white yes-and-no division.


In a negotiation, ‘Coulds’ are sometimes called ‘elegant negotiables’ as they may be on the initial ‘want’ list but you are prepared to give them away in exchange for a higher-rated item. You can also box them up, being ready to, say, swap three ‘Coulds’ for one ‘Must’.


The only definite rejection category is the ‘Won’t’ or ‘Will not’ items, although these could still be desirable they are simply flagged as ‘not this time.’


As with the other categories, there is a danger of having too many or too few ‘Won’ts’ and care needs to be taken to make this realistic. If the sorting is of creative ideas, be careful here that you do not throw the baby out with the bathwater, rejecting ideas that have a seed of interest that could develop into something more useful if given a little more time and attention.

In practice

A simple way of using MoSCoW in a meeting is to brainstorm options, writing them up on a flipchart as you go, then writing M, S, C or W (in a different colour pen helps). Alternatively write the ideas on Post-it Notes and move them between flipchart pages taped to the wall for each of the four categories.


A way of helping focus participants is to time-box the target, for example by asking them to allocate the categories based on what must (/should/etc.) be done in the next four weeks.


And a final note: you may have noticed that the ‘Mo’ of MoSCoW does not really fit the word ‘Must’. Maybe we should call it ‘MuSCoW’ and sometimes indeed it is called this, although the easy of remembering MoSCoW has made this spelling more popular.


Next time:  Communities of Practice


This article first appeared in Quality World, the journal of the Chartered Quality Institute


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