Managing Competing IT Priorities

By Maya Townsend

Alpha Corporation depends on IT to drive revenues through technology enhancements. Yet the CIO is in a difficult position. She has six lines of business clamoring for attention and arguing over whose project comes first. To make matters worse, IT staffing levels remain constant while expectations rise.

The pressure to perform, along with the competing demands from customers, creates a stressful and confused environment. Project managers are pulled in multiple directions, fitting in projects for their favorite customers, ignoring other projects and working long hours. Nothing seems to get done properly and staff is on the verge of burnout.

Luckily, there are ways to manage multiple priorities effectively. Here four of the most effective actions you can take to manage your organization’s priorities.

1. Clarify the Organization’s Value Proposition

The organization’s value proposition is its reason for existence. It describes how IT adds value to the larger organization. Is IT expected to drive cost savings, improve customer satisfaction, create new revenue streams or increase revenue in existing streams? Perhaps all of the above? If so, then what are the priorities within those expectations? Does customer satisfaction trump revenue? Or are cost savings what’s really important these days?

The value proposition serves as your anchor amidst the tumult of organizational life. Once you have clarity with your operating committee on the true value of IT for the enterprise, you can identify whether a proposed initiative or project fits. Some will clearly match. These are the high value projects that go on top of the priority list.

Other projects won’t align with the value proposition. Deciding how to handle these projects can be tough, especially if their sponsors are particularly committed to them. However, if CIOs have done their groundwork and gained consensus with the operating committee on the value proposition, telling a customer, “Next quarter,” ”Next year,” or even, “No” becomes much easier.

This is exactly what happened with Alpha Corporation’s CIO. She confirmed with the operating committee that the value of the IT division was to drive revenue through technology enhancements. With their agreement and support, she renegotiated, dropping some of the internal improvement projects clogging her portfolio.

2. Create Logical, Fact-Based, Prioritization Processes for IT Investments

Unless you’re lucky enough to be in an organization with unlimited resources, there will always be tension between who gets what they want and who doesn’t. The best organizations prevent destructive politicking by creating logical, fact-based prioritization processes for IT investments.

These processes, based on the value proposition, strategies and goals of the organization, are transparent. Anyone in the organization can see exactly how decisions are made and how funds are allocated. Projects can be evaluated for potential return on investment, total cost of ownership, cost to implement, match with resource capabilities and other criteria important to the organization. A weighting system allows criteria to receive varying degrees of importance depending on organizational goals. For more information, see Steps to Prioritization by Sai Machavarapu.

3. Develop Structures That Identify and Resolve Resource Allocation Conflicts

Internal organizations inevitably butt heads despite clear prioritization processes. These conflicts are not necessarily negative; often they direct attention to important issues. However, when the conflicts stay under the surface or aren’t managed well, they can create nagging and disruptive problems.

One team of developers, for example, was pulled between two different departments. Instead of resolving the issue, the team worked for both departments, sacrificing quality in order to be responsive. The problem wasn’t discovered until a project review showed serious schedule and scope issues in the projects for both departments. Beneath these project issues were deeper organizational concerns: project managers and developers reluctant to negotiate with their clients, customers who had learned that they could get what they wanted by skirting the formal prioritization system and a tendency to solve problems by working harder, not smarter.

In this case, there was a structure for identifying resource allocation conflicts: the project review. However, waiting for the next project review may be impossible given the pain that over-allocated employees feel. Ideally, employees should be able to talk with their managers. But are their managers accessible? Do employees even know who their manager is? Believe it or not, in some companies, people don’t know.

Internal structures, such as continuous process improvement efforts, resource reviews and daily huddles, surface and resolve resource allocation conflicts before they interfere with product quality and service delivery. They also shape a culture in which people can freely raise issues and proactively solve problems.

4. Create Structures to Encourage Employee Collaboration

IT relies on colleagues across department and organizational lines in order to get things done. Yet, relationships between IT and its business clients are often strained, with both parties complaining about lack of understanding and responsiveness. In their dedicated efforts to service customers, IT teams are often too busy or too distracted to share lessons learned with colleagues.

Creating simple structures that encourage employee collaboration can make the difference. Collaboration and knowledge sharing opportunities prevent teams from reinventing work already begun by others. Five proven techniques for building effective collaboration are listed below. Which is the best match for your organization?

Method Description
Best Practice Forums Periodic meetings that bring teams together to share best practices that they have developed during the course of their work.
Communities of Practice Networks of individuals who all have an interest in a certain topic (a particular technology, line of business or type of work) who convene to share information and ideas. The venue can take the form of in-person discussions, online data repositories or colloquiums.
Knowledge Databases Online repositories of organizational knowledge. Accessible to project teams, repository data identifies project lessons learned, explains methodologies and presents helpful tools and templates.
Pulse Groups Periodic meetings of randomized groups of employees. Facilitated by a neutral third party, the Pulse Group provides a time for employees to identify barriers to success, brainstorm improvement ideas and dialogue openly with organizational leadership.
Task Force A group of cross-functional employees brought together for a limited amount of time in order to solve a high-profile or business-critical problem.

Where to Begin?

To take the first step toward getting competing priorities under control, begin where you have the most leverage. For CIOs, this may mean more emphasis on clarifying the value proposition with the operating committee, creating an effective prioritization process or formalizing the resource allocation and review process. For a project manager, this may mean pulling teams together to share lessons learned. What’s most important is to jump in and begin managing your organization’s priorities.

Maya Townsend, founder and lead consultant at Partnering Resources, builds aligned, focused organizations that execute their goals more effectively. She can be reached at mayatownsend@partneringresources.com. For a free online assessment of organizational adaptability, visit www.partneringresources.com.

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