“You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.”

David Allen

The NHS.UK Alpha team had a problem. Like so many other teams in the world, we had too many “projects” (most were actually products or services) and not enough time to do them all. Each project was based upon user needs and everyone had an opinion as to which was most valuable, leaving us with a prioritisation problem. The problem is simple: when you prioritise a “to do” list, there will be winners and there will be losers, and no-one likes to lose.

We were keen to avoid analysis paralysis, a common behaviour in which organisations discuss what to do next for longer than it takes to simply do it; with the final decision then being made using the HIPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) metric, to the likely detriment of all concerned.

To avoid this, we decided to get all those involved in the same room and state a simple aim: decide which ideas would deliver the most value to the public and de-prioritise everything else.

After comparing various ideas from industry (MoSCoW, cost of delay etc…) we settled on adapting a prioritisation process used by Pandora. They understood you have limited resources (in the form of people) and that if you try to do everything, then you will end up doing nothing. Our key adaptations were as follows:

  1. Our prioritisation metric was, “Why will this product/project will deliver more value to the public than any other?” (instead of, “What would be stupid for us not to do in the next 90 days?”).
  2. We used blind voting instead of piles of fake money.
  3. We planned for the next 12 months, instead of just three, as government runs a yearly budgeting cycle.

1. Preparation

A good workshop doesn’t just happen by itself and this one was no different. For us to prioritise all the ideas in just 2 hours of face time, we needed plenty of background work in advance.

We gauged interest from team members for each project using a simple Google form. It allowed us to quickly create cross-functional teams to build the case for each of the 14 proposed projects. Each team had a clear aim: understand and question the value of the idea, then complete a one pager that could be brought into the prioritisation workshop. We firmly believe that if you can’t articulate a project in a single page, then there is a good chance that you don’t fully understand it. (The one pager also focused attention on what we are all about: user needs.)

Screen Shot 2016-03-18 at 09.39.04

Those involved were also reminded of what was meant by “Private beta” – the stage in which some members of the public are using the service, but it is not yet open to everyone.


The one pagers were collected, printed on A3 and placed on the walls of the workshop, along with a reminder of what to focus on during the session – the need to focus on public value:

Screen Shot 2016-03-18 at 09.45.00

2. The workshop

1) Setting the scene – 10 mins

Everyone already knew each other’s names, so we moved straight into the session, starting by clearly stating the objectives:

A, Remove the projects/products/services that offered the least value.
B. Prioritise those that were left.

Those involved in the session were also reminded of the key prioritisation metric, Why will this product/project deliver more value to the public than any other?” They were also reminded that during the session their seniority was irrelevant as everyone had the same number of votes and time to make a decision.

2) Digesting information presented for each project/product – 40 mins

Everyone was asked to carefully study the A3 sheets attached to wall.

3) “Voting” – 10 mins

Everyone was provided with a blank voting template, informed that they had five votes to split as they saw fit and reminded that voting must be done “blind” (not knowing which the others had voted for). This was done to avoid each member being influenced by the others.

4) Break – 10 mins

Those in the room were asked stretch their legs and grab a drink. This allowed them to refresh their brains and crucially allowed me to tally votes and rearrange the room. The one-pagers without votes were removed and the rest re-arranged to represent their share of the votes (left to right) on the wall.

5) Examination of votes cast – 5 mins

As everyone re-entered the room, they were informed of what had happened whilst they were away and naturally they proceeded to examine the new ordering and voting totals.

6) Discussion of “voting” – 20 mins

This was by far the hardest part of the session to facilitate. For each remaining one pager, two minutes was given to discuss the arguments for and against the idea being the most valuable one to do next.

This required cutting off people during their conversation when time had expired, but this was crucial to keep everyone focused on the task at hand and avoid a circular discussion.  

7) Re-vote – 10 mins

Everyone was given new voting sheets and again voted “blind”, but this time only with two votes per person.

8) List agreed and published – 5 mins

The final votes were added anonymously to the templates and the templates were re-arranged again to show the final order.

This order is now being worked into a delivery plan for 2016/2017 and will be explained further in an upcoming blog post.

3. Lessons learnt

“We started off trying to set up a small anarchist community, but people wouldn’t obey the rules.”

Alan Bennett 

Overall the exercise worked well, but without sounding like an annoying board game enthusiast, only because everyone was prepared to follow the rules! This included being very strict on timings.

The format exposed plenty of misunderstandings and the session was crucial in creating a shared agreement between the senior stakeholders of the road ahead, the value of which cannot be overstated. This was enhanced further by the fact that the output couldn’t be (and wasn’t) disputed, giving the team a clear mandate for what needs to be done next. Once we had our reduced, prioritised list of researched ideas, it was far easier to see the wood for the trees and it became clear what the team needed to do next.

The biggest failing of the session was its end. Once the list had been revealed, following the second round of voting, I had planned for the session to end, however next steps were not immediately clear. With the power of hindsight, another section should have been added, in which we could assign roles and responsibilities to follow up the decisions to be made.

If you have any questions about the session, or you would like some help in re-using it, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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