Get Your Priorities Straight

Use the MoSCoW technique to quickly
and easily prioritize tasks

by Kishore Erukulapati

Effective and efficient prioritization is important to ensure time and resources are well spent on tasks that provide maximum value.1, 2 It helps us understand what is important to stakeholders and which initiatives require focus. One technique that can help with prioritization is the MoSCoW technique.3

MoSCoW technique

MoSCoW is simple, quick, easy-to-use and straightforward, and has origins in the dynamic systems development method.4 MoSCoW stands for "must have, should have, could have and would like." To make the acronym easy to remember, the letter "o" is added after the "M" and "C."5, 6

To more easily prioritize the tasks of an initiative, separate them into the following categories:

  • Must have. These are the critical and non-negotiable tasks that must be fulfilled for an initiative to be successful. Failure to complete one or more tasks from this list will cause the initiative to fail. Other variations include minimum usable set, mandatory and most important.
  • Should have. These are important, high priority and negotiable tasks, but are not critical or essential to the initiative’s success. Complete as many of these tasks as possible unless they negatively affect tasks from the must-have list.
  • Could have. These tasks are desirable or nice to have, but aren’t necessary for the initiative to be successful. Complete these tasks unless they negatively affect tasks from the must-have or should-have lists.
  • Would like. These tasks are not currently a priority. They can be completed at a future date after successful completion of the initiative. Other variations include won’t have and want to have.

Use in higher education

Doctoral students undertake the highest formal education and invest significant time and resources in their education. They set their own expectations to fulfill ambitions, aspirations and passions, and short and long-term academic and professional goals.7

Doctoral programs from reputed universities have rigorous and comprehensive expectations that students must fulfill in a fixed timeframe to receive the highest formal education.8, 9

It is essential for students to understand and manage those expectations early so they can take full advantage of opportunities available to them and successfully complete the doctoral program and become competent, collaborative and independent research scholars, innovators, entrepreneurs, educators, leaders and life-long learners.10, 11

MoSCoW is an excellent technique that helps students capture stakeholder expectations, as illustrated in Table 1, and develop an appropriate portfolio that covers research, education and leadership aspects to meet these expectations.

Table 1


  1. Bjorn Lomborg, "How Do We Prioritize Our Resources?" Institute of Public Affairs Review, Vol. 55, No. 4, 2003, pp. 3-7.
  2. Laura Stack, What to Do When There's Too Much to Do: Reduce Tasks, Increase Results, and Save 90 Minutes a Day, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2012.
  3. Philippe Kruchten, "When Robert Rules," IEEE Software, Vol. 26, No. 1, 2009, pp. 20-21.
  4. Kelly Waters, "Prioritization Using MoSCoW," All About Agile, Jan. 12, 2009, https://cs.anu.edu.au/courses/comp3120/local_docs/
  5. "The DSDM Agile Project Framework (2014 onwards)," Agile Business Consortium, www.dsdm.org/content/moscow-prioritisation.
  6. Waters, "Prioritization Using MoSCoW," see reference 4.
  7. Vicki S. Conn, Julie Zerwic, Susan Rawl, Jean F. Wyman, Janet L. Larson, Cindy M. Anderson, Nancy L. Fahrenwald, Lazelle E. Benefield, Marlene Z. Cohen, Carol E. Smith, Robert Topp and Natalie E. Markis, "Strategies for a Successful PhD Program: Words of Wisdom From the WJNR Editorial Board," Western Journal of Nursing Research, Vol. 36, No. 1, 2013, pp. 6-30.
  8. Jose Garcia-Quevedo, Francisco Mas-Verdú and Jose Polo-Otero, "Which Firms Want PhDs? An Analysis of the Determinants of the Demand," Higher Education, Vol. 63, No. 5, 2012, pp. 607-620.
  9. Meghan J. Pifer and Vicki L. Baker, "Stage-Based Challenges and Strategies for Support in Doctoral Education: A Practical Guide for Students, Faculty Members, and Program Administrators," International Journal of Doctoral Studies, Vol. 11, 2016, pp. 1115-34.
  10. Nancy L. Leech, "Educating Knowledgeable and Skilled Researchers in Doctoral Programs in Schools of Education: A New Model," International Journal of Doctoral Studies, Vol. 7, 2012, pp. 19-37.
  11. Louis Gritzo, "What Every New PhD Should Know," Research Technology Management, Vol. 57, No. 4, 2014, pp. 11-12.

Kishore Erukulapati is a doctoral student in technology management, quality systems at Indiana State University in Terre Haute. A senior ASQ member, Erukulapati is an ASQ-certified quality manager of organizational excellence. He currently serves as the membership chair of ASQ’s Hawaii Section. He also is a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), chair of IEEE’s Hawaii Computer Society chapter and vice-chair of IEEE’s Hawaii Section.

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