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The MoSCoW Method—what it is, how to use it

Last updated on
September 13, 2021

No matter how well intentioned we are or how motivated we feel, actually getting stuff done is hard —way harder than it should be. If you have a list of tasks in front of you, you might sit down at your desk and intend to plough them without interruption, but life often has other ideas. Whether it’s getting distracted by incoming emails or turning your attention to something that seems more urgent (though not necessarily more important), sticking to our priorities is often harder to do than it should be.

The good news is that there are many prioritization techniques that can help you out—and if you’re working on a project, one of the very best is the MoSCoW method. So what exactly is this? And how can it benefit us?

What is the MoSCoW method?

The MoSCoW method—also known as MoSCoW prioritization or MoSCoW analysis—is essentially a framework for prioritization that can be applied to any different situation or project, and it’s used to help individuals and teams understand which tasks they should focus on. The main aim of the MoSCoW method is to categorize tasks into four groups; Must, Should, Could and Won’t. The words stand for:

  • Must Have—vital for success
  • Should Have—outcomes that aren’t essential, but still important
  • Could Have—can potentially be brought into the project
  • Won’t Have this time—outcomes that won’t be achieved with this project
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How to use the MoSCoW method

The most common way to apply the MoSCoW method is for project work, particularly within a team. Managing a project is a notoriously complex process, and budget and time constraints are often big issues. Many projects only begin with a vague list of requirements, and it’s not until later that teams find out their client’s needs haven’t been met or understood.

To use the MoSCoW method, you first need to have a list of your client’s requirements, and for everyone to be aligned on objectives and prioritization factors. Once you’ve got your list of requirements, you then need to decide which tasks or initiatives to prioritize. As you work through the list, consider whether the task falls into the Must, Should, Could or Won’t category.

  • Must. A task which must be completed and is imperative to do if the project is to succeed. Without this task being completed, the project will probably fail.
  • Should. A task that’s still important, but can be delayed if time, resources or money are tight. They’re not as time-sensitive as Must tasks.
  • Could. Tasks that aren’t essential but can be desirable. These can be completed if there’s enough time or budget left.
  • Won’t. These tasks are the least important and can be completed at a later date—or not at all.

The advantages of the MoSCoW method

There are lots of benefits to applying the MoSCoW method to project work. One of the biggest advantages is that it helps give a project focus, and forces difficult decisions to be made regarding which direction a project will take. It’s often the first time a client has even been asked—or even thought about—which requirements are actually essential for the project, and which requirements are just nice to have.

Using the MoSCoW method is also just a very effective way for a team to stay focused. Prioritizing the most important tasks means the main parts of a project can be completed quickly, and the fancier bits can be added later. It helps project workers stay on the same page and ensures everyone knows what the current focus of the project is.

Using the Moscow method allows teams to assign a certain percentage of resource to each category—and also means that the client or the project team might decide that some requirements don’t actually need to be done, which helps keep the project as simple and streamlined as possible.


Applying the Moscow method beyond project delivery

While the MoSCow method is usually used within teams, it can easily be adapted to individual work management to help you manage expectations around your own performance. If you’re someone who tends to panic when your to-do list is as long as your arm, for example, you can use the MoSCow method to figure out which tasks are truly important, and which ones you can cross off for now and put out of your mind.

During a time when many of us are working more than ever —often without even realizing it—being able to set boundaries around your own self-expectation and available energy is critically important.

So, if you struggle to recognize when a piece of work is actually done, and feel like you should continue adding to it and expanding it, then the MoSCow method can help you step back and see that you’ve already done what was required of you. It’s a good way to avoid overworking and prevent stress, and can help you actually feel good about what you've achieved, rather than thinking about what more you could have done.

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