Team-based prioritization of activities with Rational Focal Point

Customize Rational Focal Point prioritization to balance criteria across multiple users and groups

IBM Rational Focal Point prioritization capabilities help organizations make complex decisions about how to allocate their limited resources. John Goodson and Brad Sandler describe how to create a customized prioritization exercise to suit the unique needs of your organization's structure and decision-making style. Then they explain how to visually display the results of that exercise.


John J. Goodson (, Senior Software Engineer, IBM

author photoJohn is an IBM Certified IT Architect. He has been with IBM for 12 years, initially in support and then moving to development of electronic support tools, such as the IBM Support Portal. John has created a Rational Focal Point workspace for electronic support and has administered the workspace through multiple prioritization by involving a variety of teams and subteams.

Bradford J. Sandler (, Executive Project Manager, IBM

author photoBrad is an IBM Executive Project Manager assigned to the IBM Software Services, Rational team. He is responsible for managing software delivery project teams in the deployment of Rational software, including both knowledge management (Rational Asset Manager) and portfolio management (Rational Team Concert and Rational Focal Point) applications.

26 March 2013

Organizations rarely have the budget and resources to do everything they want to do, especially in terms of IT projects. So they need to prioritize whatever resources they have, so they can focus on the items that provide the best return on investment. But who gets to decide where to devote resources and what criteria do they use? Sometimes, large projects are easy to evaluate because they are part of a strategic vision of the CEO or required by law. But some smaller projects might not get enough visibility to help decision makers to make informed decisions. Spreading out the decision process and getting input from a wider group of stakeholders can improve the decision process — when managed correctly. Stakeholders appreciate being part of the process which makes them more invested in the outcome. The results need to be based on defined criteria — not just gut feelings — to be valuable to the organization.

Benefits of using Rational Focal Point to set priorities

IBM® Rational® Focal Point™ helps managers in organizations set priorities activities, ranging from individual requirements to large projects or initiatives. The process can involve as much or as little stakeholder input as they want. By using multiple weighted criteria and other features included in the software, decision makers can see where they should apply resources. The result of the exercise is a concise, ordered list of elements that takes all of the criteria into consideration.

Enter and track elements easily

One of the benefits of using Rational Focal Point is that it has a variety of functions (or options) available to record and track the information that you want to review. Whether it is projects, initiatives, requirements, or other factors, you can create a module for any type of element that you want to track or prioritize. Each item entered into Rational Focal Point is considered an element. Elements are grouped together with similar elements into modules. Figure 1 shows a Projects module with five elements. (See the Resources section for a link to a demonstration.)

Figure 1. Custom Projects module and project element details
Projects on left, details for each on right

Additionally, you can make these elements living records that will continue to be useful beyond the prioritization exercise and link them to applications integrated with the Rational solution for Collaborative Lifecycle Management (CLM).

Rational Focal Point does not require programming skills to create elements or views. Nearly all functions, such as defining attributes, views, and criteria, can be performed by typical users. They need to invest only a little time to learn how to create, update, and share new functionality quickly and easily.

Create multiple criteria

Rational Focal Point structures priorities according to criteria, and you'll find it especially helpful when you provide multiple criteria for making a decision. Using multiple weighted criteria to reach a consensus or decision is called the analytic hierarchy process. The stakeholders determine what criteria the elements should be judged on and the weight of each criterion. For example, if you are judging IT projects, you might decide that one criterion is to increase traffic to your website. This is a "maximize" criterion, because you want to select the elements that do the most to improve traffic. Another criterion could be reducing the complexity of the project. This would be a "minimize" criterion, because you want to select elements that reduce complexity.

The process of using multiple criteria enables an organization to rank the elements based on different perspectives. For example, imagine that the project that increases web traffic the most is also the most complex, but another project that doesn't increase traffic quite as much is significantly less complex. Using a weighted criteria prioritization process would generally show you that the second project is a better fit, because it meets both of your criteria, but the first project meets only one.

Because criteria are the critical building blocks of any prioritization exercise, Rational Focal Point includes a Criteria module.

Figure 2. Criteria module
Screen shows web traffic criterion

Choose priorities

After you create your elements and criteria, the next step is determining which elements best meet those criteria. Rather than having a single person make those decisions, Rational Focal Point helps you open the decision-making process to a wider audience, from only a few key stakeholders to a much larger group. Using prioritization mode, each of these voters can judge the elements against the criteria and contribute to the consensus.

Going back to the example with two web projects, Rational Focal Point isn't making the decision of which project increases website traffic the most. It is up to the voters to make that determination by judging that project against all other projects. In other words, voters do not have to guess that this project will increase traffic by 10% or something specific. They merely have to decide whether they think this project will increase traffic slightly more, significantly more, or less than another project.

The process that Rational Focal Point uses for voters to rank elements is called pairwise comparison. Rather than giving the voters a list and asking them to rank items on the list from 1 to N, the application randomly selects two elements and asks the voters to judge them on a single criterion. As the blue bar at the bottom of Figure 3 shows, they use a 9-point scale that includes 4 values to prefer the first (left) element, 4 values that prefer the second (right) element, and an option to rank them equally.

Figure 3. Pairwise comparison example
Details about two elements and buttons at bottom

Prioritization tips

Through numerous prioritization exercises, we have developed several tips about ways to make the process easier:

  • As an organization, decide ahead of time what criteria should be used and rank those criteria.
  • Limit the criteria to a reasonable number (3-5 are plenty). Otherwise, the voting process can become tedious, because voters must rank elements many more times, and they can get fatigued by voting on the same elements with different criteria.
  • Create a prioritization view that includes only the elements that you want to prioritize.
  • Limit the fields to display only critical information that voters need for their decisions.
  • Review all elements being prioritized to make sure that those critical fields are complete.
  • If possible, have an open session with voters to review the elements before they vote, so they understand what the element is proposing.
  • Either in an open session or in instructions, describe the criteria in detail and explain why you are using multiple criteria.
  • For new voters, provide detailed instructions or even a short video of how to move between elements and criteria.

When a voter ranks these two elements, the application chooses the next two elements for the voter to rank. The prioritization process enables a voter to weigh the elements against each other. This simplifies the thought process, because the voter is evaluating only two elements at a time, rather than a long list of elements. Voters need to complete only a limited number of comparisons for the application to compute the weighted ranking of all elements for that criterion.

However, Rational Focal Point also supports entering values for criteria rather than doing a pairwise comparison. This is helpful if you know the exact information. For example, if one criterion is project cost and you know that number, you can enter that value rather than using pairwise comparisons to gauge it. For more information, see the Specifying the estimates for criteria in the information center.

Part of the value of prioritization is assigning weights to your criteria. To weight your criteria, you can prioritize elements in your Criteria module. The resulting weighting is then applied to other elements that are judged by those criteria.

Display results visually

After voters complete their own pairwise comparisons for any criterion, they can see the results by using the Visualize feature.

Visualization ranks the elements and shows the relative weighting of each element. Figure 4 shows five projects ranked on the criterion of increasing sales. The top element received roughly twice as much weight as the second element for this criterion.

Figure 4. Visual results for one voter's priorities
Bar graph of a single user's priorities

Combine different results in a bar graph display

Rational Focal Point can combine multiple criteria in a single display that shows both positive (maximize) and negative (minimize) criteria (see Figure 5). The positive criteria are added on the right of the center bar and the negative criteria appear on the left. Using this combined visualization, you can view the ranking across the multiple criteria. Elements with a combination of the highest positive and lowest negative rankings appear at the top.

Figure 5. Combined results
Bar graph combines multiple criteria

Drawbacks of using the default prioritization settings

The default prioritization process works well in many situations, especially when there are a very small number of voters and they all have an equal say in the decision. But that is rare in real-world situations.

If you decide to create public criteria for the prioritization, everyone will vote on the same criteria. If the first voter decides that Project A is significantly better for client value than Project B, it is very difficult to sway things back the other way, even if every other voter thinks that Project B is better than Project A. With public prioritizations, there are also a maximum number of comparisons that can be made before no additional votes will be accepted.

You can overcome some of those issues by using private criteria. The private criteria type creates a unique criterion for each user. But there are drawbacks to using private criteria, too:

  • First, everyone's votes are calculated equally. You might have the organization leader voting along with the department heads on projects. Although it would be great to assume that everyone has an equal vote, in many cases, leaders are happier if their votes are weighted higher.
  • Second, when you attempt to visualize the combined results of private criteria, it's easy to get overwhelmed by the number of unique votes, as Figure 6 shows.
Figure 6. Default private prioritization
Visualization of private criteria prioritization
  • Another drawback becomes apparent when you have multiple departments that want to vote. Perhaps IT, Sales, Marketing, and Finance all want to vote. To further complicate it, you have four voters from IT, six from Sales, two from Marketing, and three from Finance. Using the default private criteria prioritization process, Sales would get 40% of the vote because of the number of people voting.

The way to overcome these drawbacks is to customize the prioritization process.

Configure Rational Focal Point for team-based prioritization

Although your elements module will stay the same, a team-based prioritization process requires customization of the Criteria module. You will need to have Workspace Administration rights in to customize that module.

Add an attribute to the Criteria module

First, you need to modify the Criteria module to add a Member field. You can use that field to associate a specific criterion with a voter.

  1. From the Configure menu, select Attributes.
  2. Select the Criteria module.
  3. Select Add Attribute.
  4. Select a Link attribute.
  5. Enter Member as the title.
  6. Set the Target module to the Members module (or a view in that module).
  7. Select OK to save your changes.

Create folders and copy criteria for each voter

Next, you need to create folders in your Criteria module that match the structure that you want to use. The organization of the folders is dependent on what you want the final visualization to look like. In our first example, we created a folder for the type of criteria (project criteria) and then a subfolder for each specific criterion (web traffic, complexity, and so forth).

Set each of these folders to a criteria type of Sum. When creating the folders, make sure to set whether these are maximize or minimize objectives.

Figure 7. Criteria folders
Folder structure example
  1. After you have set up this structure, create a single criterion in the first folder for the first criterion (for example: Increase web traffic).
  2. Set this to Public and either the maximize or minimize objective.
  3. Then copy this criterion for every other voter.
  4. After you have made the copies, select the person in the Member field that you created. Tip: It will be easier to track whether you have created a criterion for each member if you add the voter's name in the description.
Figure 8. Individual criteria by role of each voter
Arrows for Maximize (up), minimize (down) criteria

Creating a criterion for every user can be tedious, and it is not required. You could create a criterion for each team, instead. However, there are three benefits of creating the criteria for each user:

  • You can give additional weight to specific individuals.
  • You can balance votes better if you have a different number of voters on each team.
  • You can more easily create the My Prioritizations view that is described in the next section.

Create a My Prioritizations view

When you have the criteria set up, you need to create a prioritization view that displays only the criteria for the current user.

  1. Create a My Criteria view:
    1. From the Configure menu, create a new view by selecting Views and then clicking Add View.
    2. Name the view My Criteria.
    3. Select the Criteria module and set the view rules to these values:
      • All elements in the Criteria module whose type is a folder is false
      • Member is Current user
    4. Save that view. It is not necessary to make that view displayable.
  2. Create a My Prioritizations view
    1. Create a second new view as you did previously in Step 1.
    2. Title the view "My Prioritizations," and select the module that contains the elements that you want to prioritize (Projects in this example).
    3. Set the view rules to select the elements for prioritization, perhaps based on a status field or a parent folder.
    4. Select only the attributes that are important for voters to see as ones that are visible in this view.
    5. Set the view to appear in the Prioritize display.
    6. Set the Criteria view to the My Criteria view that you created.
    7. Share this view with all voters.
Figure 9. My Prioritizations view definition
Example of my prioritization view definition

Voters will now be able to complete their pairwise comparisons and vote only on the criteria you have specified for them.

Visualize the results of the team's prioritization

After voting is finished, you can display (visualize) the results. Another benefit of creating individual criteria is the ability to reorganize the criteria to generate different views. As long as you do not delete a specific criterion but merely move it between different folders, you can adjust the overall display.

The first example that follows (Figure 10) shows the results based on the original folder structure of the criteria. Given that you created each folder as a sum, you can create a view to select only those sums and display the results.

Create the views

  1. Create the criteria view for the visualization:
    1. Create a new view by selecting Views in the Configure menu, and then click Add View.
    2. Name the view Top Level Criteria.
    3. Select the Criteria module.
    4. For the Top Level Criteria view, set the view rules to these values:
      • All elements in the Criteria module whose type is a folder is true
      • Parent Folder is Project Criteria
    5. Save the view.
  2. Create a view:
    1. Create a new view by using the same rules that you did for the prioritization view.
    2. Set the Visualize module to Yes.
    3. Set the Criteria view for this view to the Top Level Criteria view that you created.

Visualize results

By using the folder sum method, you get a clearer view of results, and you can adjust the weight of the criteria using the Criteria Scenarios function.

Figure 10. Top Level Criteria visualization
Shows a bar graph that uses sums of all criteria

In our next example, we took those same results and put them in a different view to get a more detailed view at the team level. In this case, we changed the structure of the criteria folders that show the sum of the results of the individual votes under Team Criteria folders rather than Project Criteria folders. The results give you the same general ordering of projects, but you can see how each team voted on each criteria and the total results. We had to create separate maximize and minimize folders, because sums don't work when you mix maximize and minimize criteria.

Figure 11. Team folders structure
Organization of criteria under team folders
Figure 12. Team-level visual summary of results
Bidirectional bar graphs for sums of all criteria

You can customize this structure in whatever way people in your organization want to view the prioritization results. As long as you create a single criterion for each voter and each category of criteria, you can arrange the criteria into different folders and see the results without altering the overall results.

These examples are just some of the ways that we have worked with prioritization to give our organizations insightful views on how to make decisions about where to best allocate resources. We encourage you to customize this to suit the needs of your organization.



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ArticleTitle=Team-based prioritization of activities with Rational Focal Point