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What next? How to Apply Mission-Based Prioritisation to IT

Every IT team in the world has too much work to do—so the ability to prioritise properly is critical. So how do we define proper prioritisation? And who should decide what gets prioritised?

Hint: Connect it to your business mission.

Part of our Making ITIL 4 Simple series.

The clue is in the title: mission-based prioritisation. The work that IT is doing (whether it’s planned or unplanned work) should always be prioritised according to the needs of the business mission. That means IT people and business stakeholders need to work together to create a mutual understanding of priority levels and how the work that IT does maps to these levels of business priority. A mission-based priority model is a mechanism for business-IT-alignment. It is a manifestation of the Focus on Value principle of ITIL 4 as well as well as the collaborate and promote visibility principle.

What is needed is a simple prioritisation model that:

  • Makes business sense so that business people can understand the model and recognise the individual levels
  • Can be used by IT people to quickly identify the business priority of an issue
  • Can be encoded into an ITSM tool to automatically identify priority levels

Remember, Keep it simple and practical is another one of the 7 Guiding Principles of ITIL 4. That makes 3 of the 7 guiding principles that apply to this one situation.

Priority Matrix Model

ITIL 4 guidelines (based on established best practice in large and small organizations across the globe) recommend a two-dimensional matrix to model priorities:

What next? How to Apply Mission-Based Prioritisation to IT - mission based prioritisation

  • IMPACT is the “scale” dimension: How widespread is the issue having an effect? Is it one individual, a team, a department, a campus, or everyone in a global organisation? Some organizations call this “Severity”, but the official ITIL 4 term is “Impact” (probably because it conjures up an image of a blast radius). It makes perfect sense that if a whole customer service team’s CRM system is down, that should be treated as a higher priority than one agent going offline.
  • URGENCY is the “damage” dimension: What is the impact on mission achievement? Is a core business service which directly supports the business mission down? Is it stopping people from working? Has the supply chain stopped? Are shipping targets being missed? Or is it a supporting service that has no direct impact on revenue generation? Going back to our customer service team example, if customer agents are completely unable to help customers with their requests, the damage to the company’s brand could be extensive. The economic damage of an annoying printer fault will be near-zero.

So why is it a 3×3 matrix?

A priority matrix shouldn’t be overly complicated, or it won’t work. Complexity causes confusion. People abandon models they find confusing. It’s really important that there are clear lines between the levels in the matrix—otherwise people (or ITSM system rules for automated prioritisation) won’t know how to map issues/requests to priority levels accurately and consistently.

Like the diagram above, you could choose a simple 3×3 model, with the impact levels being represented by individual/group/all. Or you could apply a 3×5 model, with impact represented as individual/team/department/campus/global. It’s up to you, but you should have a strong reason as to why you are deviating from the most simple form of the model.

Albert Einstein once said, “It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.”

This is commonly paraphrased as: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

If a service desk agent is looking at an issue and can’t easily decide which box it fits into, your model is probably too complicated. If an ITSM tool cannot easily look at impact/urgency indicators and automatically set the priority level, your model is probably too complicated.

What you really don’t want is people/ITSM tools tagging issues with the wrong priority levels—because your people will be working on the wrong things. That’s why it’s important to define a clear model and then automate prioritisation based on the information logged in your ITSM tool. Once automated, you remove the scope for human error and you can be confident that work is being prioritised correctly, every time. Manual prioritisation and routing of issues are two things that IT people shouldn’t be spending time on. If you’re service desk team are doing this, talk to us about how we can automate both for you in just a few days.

Can I use a 2×2 matrix instead of 3×3?

You need to be able to divide work into manageable chunks so that your people can focus attention: they need a small pile of high-priority tasks to focus on, separated out from the other piles of medium and low-priority work.

A 2×2 matrix will give you an unmanageable number of top priority issues. Then, you’re back in a situation you started from: you can’t see the wood for the trees.

The question is this: What should I be working on right now?

If it takes a few minutes of scanning your top priority work queue to answer this question, it’s time to refine the granularity of your prioritisation model. Think of the time wasted between every task. This should take seconds.


Prioritisation of work is more important to an IT department than virtually any other—because IT issues can have a knock-on effect on the productivity of the whole organisation.

That’s why it is so critical to have a clear model that represents all of the types of issues that IT is facing in a way that IT people and business stakeholders can understand.

If your work queue is in chaos, implementing a tried-and-tested priority matrix is one of the simplest and fastest things you can do with a modern ITSM solution—and it can have a profound impact on IT productivity (and the way the rest of the organization perceives IT).


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