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How do you choose the most valuable user story?

How do you choose the most valuable user story?

Welcome to part 24 of our scrum master interview questions series where John McFadyen answers some of the most common questions asked of scrum masters in interviews and client engagements.

If ever there was an ‘’it depends’’ question, this would be it.

You need context, relevant to the environment, to make a call on this.

This is about understanding the value to the product and/or the value to the organization. What we ought to do is help organizations and product owners identify what is most valuable to them, in the context of organizational and customer objectives, in a way that they can articulate to others.

In practice, many product owners will make a call based on their gut feel but in larger organizations where there is more of a political flavour present, it can be very difficult for a product owner to defend their priorities based on their feelings.

How do you defend user story priorities?

I would work with the product owner to understand what the primary drivers of business objectives are for the whole organization.

  • What is the organization attempting to achieve?
  • What are the primary levers that help deliver against those objectives?
  • What are the customer priorities?
  • What are the customers trying to achieve?
  • What are the most compelling problems that customers need solved?

And so forth.

In short, what are they aiming for and what do they measure as part of their understanding of what success looks like? We’re looking for product drivers and articulating priorities based on a deep understanding of what creates and captures value for customers and the organization.

  • Which of these user stories align with a specific product driver?
  • Which of these user stories has the greatest impact in delivering against those drivers?
  • In which order of priority should each user story be addressed relative to organizational and customer objectives?

When you have identified those elements, it becomes easier for a product owner to defend their user story priorities.

Build a matrix

What I tend to do, as a scrum master and agile coach, is build a matrix to help inform which user stories are the most important and how they should be prioritized.

List each item in the backlog and create a column for each of the primary drivers of value. In each column, score the user story in terms of its potential to create value or move the needle on a metric that matters to the organization and customers.

Make sure that you also weigh each of the drivers relative to their importance and potential impact on customers and the organization.

For example, the primary strategy might be to acquire more customers for the platform. Yes, customer satisfaction is important and so is customer retention, but the acquisition of new customers is THE most important driver for the organization at this time.

Make sure your matrix reflects that priority and score items accordingly.

Your scoring system for each user story will help you make prioritization decisions and justify why certain user stories are being brought into the sprint backlog at certain times.

How do you choose user stories?

Once you’ve understood the primary business drivers that are important to the organization and have scored each user story relative to the primary business drivers, it becomes much easier to work with the team to select user stories for upcoming sprints.

If the primary focus for Q1 2023 is growth, we simply choose the items that have the highest score for moving the needle on growth.

If the focus shifts to customer retention for Q2 2023, we simply choose the items that have the highest impact on customer retention, in order of value delivered, and use our matrix scoring system to justify those decisions.

It doesn’t matter how you collect and present the data, from a spreadsheet to an analog matrix of post it notes, just make sure that you can quickly and easily identify which user stories are the most valuable in the context of the primary business and customer objectives.

You will also be able to refine your backlog quickly and easily, based on new information or shifts in the market, in a way that makes it easy for the scrum team to make effective decisions.

It also helps the product owner defend against political lobbying for items that don’t have an impact on the business goals and objectives that matter. Yes, we can bring items into the backlog, but we will prioritize them according to the system that measures effectiveness rather than who is shouting the loudest and has the most clout within the organization.


Allow the algorithm you have developed to help inform decision-making.

Sure, there may be a massive change in the market or a business requirement for you to prioritize an item in the sprint, but for the most part, you want a reliable algorithm to inform the work you pull into the sprint.

That said, you don’t want the spreadsheet to dictate the work. It is a map, not the territory itself.

You still want to have conversations with customers, product stakeholders, and the scrum team to ensure that you are working on the most valuable items, and that there is a clear understanding of how that work serves a specific or long-term purpose.

The developers are the experts that are best placed to decide about the work that needs doing, how to do that work, and why an item should be pulled into the sprint backlog. You don’t want to take that autonomy away from them. You just want to create a system that acts as a reliable guide for them to consider when making decisions and allows others to quickly and easily understand why their decision makes sense in the context of what matters most to the customer or organization.

In closing, you can wing it when it comes to choosing user stories, but I prefer having a system that empowers the product owner to make great decisions and defend those decisions effectively.

About John McFadyen

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