The phenomenon I call priority inflation has spread to product planning documents as well. Back in the old days, there were three priority levels:

  • Priority 1: must have. If you don't accomplish a priority 1 item, you may as well just cancel the project because it ain't shipping.
  • Priority 2: should have. If you don't accomplish a priority 2 item, the product is significantly weaker, but you can still ship it.
  • Priority 3: nice to have. If you don't accomplish a priority 3 item, it's not quite as awesome as it could have been, but it's still a good product.

Over the past few years, I've seen a shift in the labelling of priorities in planning documents. A new priority has been introduced: Priority Zero. Nobody has explained to me what Priority 0 means, but I assume somebody invented it to emphasize that the feature is even more critical than priority 1. Mind you, I'm not sure what could be more important to a project than "If we don't do this, we're all fired." Maybe "If we don't do this, the earth will explode."

As you might expect, priority inflation has a trickle-down effect. People whose features had been assigned priority 1 said, "Hey, how come my feature isn't priority 0? It's just as critical as that other guy's feature." Soon, everything that was priority 1 got reclassified as priority 0. Nature abhors a vacuum, so all the priority 2 items got reclassified as priority 1, and the priority 3 items got reclassified as priority 2.

In the end, nothing changed aside from the names on the buckets. It's been years since I've seen a planning document with any priority 3 items. It's all zero, one, and two now.

Wait, I lied. The meaning of the last bucket (the former priority 3, now named priority 2) has changed. It used to be things that would be nice to have, but now it appears to be used for something other people suggested which I didn't think was important, but I didn't want to be mean and reject it outright, so I'm listing it here to make those people feel better and showing that their "voice was heard," but don't kid yourself; we're not going to do it. In other words, priority 2 means No.

I give it three years before somebody decides that an issue is even more critical than priority 0 and labels it Priority −1.

Epilogue: After I originally wrote this entry, I've learned that some teams have indeed come up with a priority level even more important than Priority 0. It's called Priority Now.