One of my favorite tools – stack rank

by Scott Austin August 08, 2012

One of my favorite tools – stack rank

Yes, I am a big fan of the stack rank. But not the questionable HR stack ranking done at review time. Let me show you the good stack rank. Every company, from startup to Fortune 500 and every person, from entry-level to CEO all share a similar problem. We all have a to-do list that is longer than we can do.  There are many ways to determine what on your to-do list you should do.  You could work on the items that you like or enjoy the most.  You could work on the items that are the most urgent.  You could work on the items that are the most important.  You could work on the items that have been on the list the longest.  Etc. In a startup (like most other places) it's essential to move quickly and efficiently.  So I'll say that we need to prioritize this big to-do list to ensure that we are working on the most important items.  So how do you determine what is the most important? The concept is really simple. Have a stack rank of the work you could be doing with the more important items at the top of the list. Work on the items near the top of the list. Don't work on the items in the middle or at the bottom of the list until the items at the top are done. While the concept is simple, it does require a bit of discipline to execute. Here are some of the ways that I stay focused on my stack ranks.
  • Follow your stack rank.  Some of the bullets below explain how to stack rank your list.  Once you follow one of those methods for determining the order of the list, respect it.  Avoid the pitfall of arguing with the methodology just because your pet project is not at the top.
  • One way to come up with a stack rank is t-shirt sizing.  Items on the list are judged by criteria.  But don't make the judging too complex.  Each criteria is given a 't-shirt' costing.  One of three choices, Low, Medium, High, for example.  Each choice is given a score.  In the example below, high = 5, medium = 3 and low = 1.  Score each row by the criteria and sort by the total score.  Done.

TShirt Ranking  

  • Another method to come up with a stack rank is to use chips.  Give each team member a certain number of chips that they can use to vote on items as they see fit.  Add up the chips each item gets and sort by the total.  Done.
Chip Stack Ranking  
  • Don’t get caught up in making things completely, 100% perfect.  If you only have the capacity to be working on the top three items on the list, it really doesn’t matter if a given item is number 9 or 10 on the list today.  Either way, its not getting attention now.  So trim the debating of the team down by not worrying at all about the relative ranking of the items further down the list.
You've probably experienced this scenario before. Someone (maybe even you) comes up with a great new idea. It is such a good idea that everyone jumps on board with enthusiasm. And everyone spends a whole bunch of time discussing it, planning it, specing it, etc.  But should a new idea get that much attention?  Well, take your new ideas and add it into your stack rank at the right point.  If it's high up the list, invest time in it.  If it is not high up the list, acknowledge the great idea, show where it falls on the stack rank and focus back on the things at the top of the list. Your stack rank should be a living tool.  Add new items when they come in.  Take items off when they are done.  Re-evaluate the priority periodically.
Scott Austin
Scott Austin