Stack Ranking (forced ranking) is a prioritization technique which involves taking a list of options (ideas, problems, stories, etc.) and ordering them along an axis according to a single criterion (e.g. value, importance, cost, complexity, risk, etc.)
Core team, stakeholders, subject-matter experts
Stack Ranking is a simple approach for the team to align on the most important thing to focus on. This exercise ensures that decisions are driven from multiple perspectives by facilitating conversations about what’s most important and why.
Whenever the team has a set of items that are requiring their attention, which need discussion and team support for tackling in a certain order, and there is a single criterion against which they can all be evaluated.
Gather all the options to be prioritized and write each one on individual sticky notes (or digital equivalent).
Decide together on a criterion on which to evaluate and prioritize these options.
Create a vertical line and label it with the chosen criterion.
From here, there are multiple techniques to engender team discussion as you collectively place the options along this single axis.
Pick an option at random and place it alongside the middle of the vertical line.
Pick a second option at random and ask the team, “Should this option be higher or lower than the first option, according to the criterion?” Place the second option above or below the first, according to the team’s prioritization decision.
Continue placing remaining options relative to other items as done in steps 4 and 5 until all options are stacked vertically against the line.
As a group, divide the options into three groups based on the criterion: highest, moderate and least. Place the groups along the vertical axis accordingly.
Starting with the highest stack, discuss and place the individual items vertically on the axis with the higher valued items above lower valued ones. Work to place all items in that stack vertically against the line.
Continue as needed or as time allows with the remaining stacks, until enough options to take action on are stacked vertically against the line.
Make copies of the options and the criterion axis for each individual in the group to rank on their own.
Set a 5 minute timer for everyone to individually rank the options along their own criterion axis, with the most highly valued options (according to the criterion) placed vertically above lower valued options.
When everyone has their own stack rank, start by asking a lower-powered individual to share their end result. Continue from there to compare everyone’s results and discuss the rationale behind any significant discrepancies. Work towards a final stack ranked list that everyone in the group can support.
You know you are done when your group has a prioritized stack of options in descending order, and can identify the top prioritized options.