The Merrill & Covey matrix: A powerful tool for prioritizing the backlog

Visit Merrill & Covey matrix, also known as the emergency-importance matrix or matrix Eisenhower is a tool prioritization, time management and productivity tool that allows you to prioritize / prioritize backlog elements (tasks, User Stories or Epics) according to their urgency and importance.

In this article, we will examine the advantages and disadvantages of using the Merrill & Covey matrix in an Agile team, comparing this technique with other commonly used prioritization methods, such as the MOSCOW technique. We’ll also look at the role of the Scrum Master and Product Owner in implementing the Merrill & Covey matrix.

We will then look at how this matrix can be used in project management tools such as

Jira

. Finally, we recommend some useful reading for those wishing to learn more about agility, Lean and the Merrill & Covey matrix.

The Merrill & Covey matrix is also known as the Eisenhower matrix. Indeed, this prioritization method was popularized by former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who used it to manage his daily tasks and make effective decisions. Stephen Covey popularized the matrix in his book “The 7 Habits of Successful Entrepreneurs”.

The Merrill & Covey matrix is a time and productivity management tool that can help Agile teams prioritize the tasks in their backlog according to importance and urgency.

The matrix is divided into four quadrants:

  1. Quadrant 1: Urgent and important. Important and urgent tasks must be given priority.

  2. Quadrant 2: Important but not urgent. These tasks are important, but not urgent. They need to be planned and dealt with before they become urgent.

  3. Quadrant 3: Urgent but not important. Tasks in this quadrant are often interruptions or distractions that don’t really contribute to long-term goals. It’s important to minimize or eliminate these tasks as much as possible.

  4. Quadrant 4: Not urgent and not important. These tasks are unnecessary distractions that need to be avoided or eliminated.

The aim of this matrix is to enable users to better manage their time and focus their attention on the most important and urgent tasks. By concentrating on important but non-urgent tasks, you can avoid the emergencies and stressful situations that can arise when working solely in Quadrant 1.

matrice merrill covey eisenhower urgence importance The Merrill & Covey matrix: A powerful tool for prioritizing the backlog

How to implement the urgency-importance matrix in an agile team?

The Merrill & Covey matrix can be a useful tool to help an agile team prioritize backlog items (SAFe Epics, User Stories or Tasks). Here are a few steps for implementing this matrix in an agile team:

  1. Involve all team members: Make sure all team members understand the matrix and how it can help them better manage their time and priorities.

  2. Retrieve the list of tasks in progress or to be done, specifying their urgency and importance.

  3. Sorting tasks into the matrix: Once the list of tasks has been drawn up, ask each team member to sort the tasks into the different quadrants of the matrix.

  4. Identify priority tasks: By examining the tasks classified in Quadrant 1 (urgent and important), the team can identify the most urgent tasks that need to be given priority.

  5. Plan Quadrant 2 tasks: By examining the tasks classified in Quadrant 2 (important but not urgent), the team can plan these tasks to prevent them from becoming urgent and stressful.

  6. Reduce or eliminate tasks in Quadrant 3 and 4: By examining tasks classified in Quadrant 3 (urgent but not important) and Quadrant 4 (non-urgent and not important), the team can identify tasks that can be reduced or eliminated to free up time and energy for more important tasks.

  7. Review regularly: The Merrill & Covey matrix should be reviewed regularly to ensure that the team’s priorities are still aligned with long-term objectives.

The Scrum Master can help the team understand and use the Merrill & Covey matrix as a task management and communication tool, while the Product Owner can use the matrix to ensure that product or project objectives and priorities are clear and well communicated.

By implementing this matrix, the agile team can better manage its time and focus on the tasks most important to achieving its long-term goals.

matrice merrill covey urgence importance eisenhower priorite tache The Merrill & Covey matrix: A powerful tool for prioritizing the backlog
Another way to materialize the matrix with a Backlog from an article on Agilemouse

Comparison between the Merrill & Covey matrix and the MoSCoW technique

The Merrill & Covey matrix and the MoSCoW technique are two different approaches to prioritizing backlog items. In the previous sections, we explained the urgency-importance matrix. You can also check out  our article on the MoSCoW prioritization technique .

Here is a brief comparison of the two techniques:

  • Both approaches are useful for prioritizing the elements of the product backlog according to their importance.
  • The Eisenhower matrix focuses on urgency and importance, while the MoSCoW technique focuses on importance only.
  • The Merrill and Covey matrix is best suited to individual tasks in a backlog, while the MoSCoW technique is best suited to prioritizing project features or requirements.
  • Both approaches can be used as part of an agile method, but the MoSCoW technique is generally more often used in Scrum teams.
In the context of the agile method, it is often recommended to use several prioritization techniques in combination, depending on the specific needs of the project and the team. The two techniques can be used in tandem, for example, the Merrill & Covey matrix can be used to prioritize individual technical tasks, while the MoSCoW technique can be used to prioritize User Stories or Epics.

In conclusion, the two approaches have similarities and differences in the way they prioritize the elements of a Product Backlog. The choice of prioritization method will depend on the specific needs of your team.

How to set up the urgency-importance matrix on Jira?

It is possible to implement the Merrill & Covey matrix in Jira using plugins or third-party software extensions.

One of the most popular plugins for setting up the emergency-importance matrix in Jira is“Priority Matrix“. This plugin lets you create custom matrices to prioritize tasks according to importance and urgency, and track their progress. Priority Matrix can be integrated directly into Jira for easy use in agile project management.

There are also other plugins and third-party software extensions that allow you to set up priority matrices similar to Merrill & Covey’s matrix in Jira, such as “Taskworld” and “Quire”.

By using these plugins and third-party software extensions, Jira users can benefit from the advantages of Merrill & Covey’s matrix for prioritizing tasks and daily activities, while using the power of Jira to manage projects and tasks agilely and efficiently.

Our recommendations for further reading

  1. Our article on the WSJF prioritization method. A prioritization tool widely used today in SAFe trains.
  2. The Lean Startup by Eric Ries – This book is an introduction to the Lean Startup movement and how it can be used to launch businesses and products in an agile way. It includes information on how the Merrill & Covey matrix can be used to prioritize tasks and activities as part of a Lean approach.
  3. Agile Estimating and Planning by Mike Cohn – This book is a practical guide to agile estimating and project planning. It includes detailed information on the Merrill & Covey matrix and other agile estimating techniques.
  4. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey – This book is a classic of productivity and personal development. It includes detailed information on the Merrill & Covey matrix, as well as habits and practices that can help people achieve their goals effectively.
  5. Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time by Jeff Sutherland – This book is a practical guide to the Scrum method and agile project management. It includes information on how the Merrill & Covey matrix can be used to prioritize tasks and activities within a Scrum approach.

  6. Our article on the RICE method, which gives a precise priority to each Backlog item.

Sources :

  1. Luke Hohmann’s WikiAgile article.
  2. The article Covey’s Matrix: the simple secret to great time management on Bytestart
  3. Some answers provided by ChatGPT, a language model trained by OpenAI.

This post is also available in: French

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Ahmed BEN SALEM

Ahmed BEN SALEM

Strongly involved in Agile methodologies, I have held the roles of Scrum Master, Product Owner and Release Train Engineer for SAFe, Scrum and DevOps projects. My approach focuses on people and stakeholder collaboration, creating environments conducive to innovation and performance.

Since 2016, I have successfully led several Agile software development projects for companies of all sizes, including Odigo, Orange and PSA. My solid experience in Agile methodologies, in particular Scrum and SAFe, has enabled me to work with multicultural teams from countries such as the USA, India, Vietnam and Morocco.

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