by David Cotgreave

Prioritizing IT projects has never mattered more

Mar 06, 2017
IT LeadershipProject Management Tools

IT project prioritization is crucial for your organization.

priorities folder urgent
Credit: Thinkstock

Selecting the wrong projects, which don’t deliver strategic value or the required ROI can impact the bottom line and mean that your business reduces its chance of hitting targets and achieving goals. You should take a day or two (or longer if your portfolio and budgets demand more) and focus on the prioritization and selection of projects and proposals so that you only commit to the “right” projects for the organization.

How to prioritize? How often should you do this?

1. Business case first

Projects that are aligned with the strategic objectives of your business take obvious priority but sometimes this decision can be rather subjective. Making this judgement unilaterally can sometimes leave project prioritization subject to unconscious bias. Sharing this decision across the broader team can help but often unconscious biases can exist across whole project teams. Having a fresh pair of eyes look at your portfolio can really help because they don’t come with any organizational hard wired bias and will take a business strategy based objective view.

Translate your business case into a short, user-friendly soundbite. For instance, your business mission may be “To increase sales revenue by 10 percent whilst reducing transactional costs by 5 percent per unit.” Having a crystal clear business case statement against which to measure your portfolio makes prioritization based on strategic value easier.

2. Go Compare!

Cue mustached opera singer! What I love about Go Compare and other price comparison websites is that they allow you to contrast proposals from a chosen number of providers based on the same criteria and data fields. Recently, I was in the market for a vacuum cleaner. The website I was looking at had a “compare products” function so I ticked a few that had caught my eye and clicked compare. I was left even more confused! The data provided for one was different to the next making it harder to objectively compare.

The lesson for IT project prioritization here is that when the data and criteria used in scope documents and project proposals has shared fields and some commonality across your portfolio — comparison and prioritization is easier.

3. List what could scupper your project

Return on investment (ROI), resource availability, budgets, timing, these are all factors that can impact upon the potential success of your project but surprisingly few project managers assess them in relation to project prioritization. Subsequently, projects often get prioritized that seem perfect on paper but are really difficult to deliver. One last year, for example, was so aligned with business case that prioritization was a no-brainer for the team but there so many dependencies that the project felt like wading through quicksand! Finally, the project depended so much on the outcome of two other projects that it was put on hold.

All of this should be identified as part of the prioritization process. Having an independent assessment of your portfolio can identify pitfalls that you may have missed but also hidden dangers that may be out of your control. When you get a firm handle on what could delay or increase the chance of failure across your projects you can prioritize based on the likelihood of success.

4. Altogether now

I needed to get that opera guy out of my head so I turned on the radio and the song that was playing was The Farm’s “Altogether Now.” What a tune! And what a project prioritization mantra!

Whether its sponsors, stakeholders, end users, clients, the CIO of the project leader, ultimately IT projects are all about people. If you’re struggling with prioritizing projects consult the people who will be impacted by your decisions.

Sometimes a different perspective on what matters can make all the difference and you will usually find that through consultation comes better stakeholder buy in, too.

Finally, after your projects have been thoughtfully prioritized but before you get started, make sure that you sit down again with your sponsor, client, and/or management to ensure that expectations are clear with all. As well as giving you a chance to check your sums it gives your sponsor, client, and/or management a final chance to chip in with any last minute input and of course to confirm that they agree with your assessment.

5. Get closer to the epicenter

The project managers who are best at prioritizing their projects are usually, in my experience, major contributors to the organisation’s strategic planning. They are either part of the actual decision-making process or they spend time with their leadership team to fully understand the direction of their business. They make it their business to understand the business vision and expectations.

It’s amazing how instinctive your approach to prioritization becomes when you do this.

6. Invest in a project portfolio and project management office assessment

Whether you do this yourself or (even better) get an independent specialist to do it for you, an assessment of your portfolio and the effectiveness of your project management office can help prioritize projects. Fifty-eight percent of organizations report poor alignment of projects with their organization strategy (Source: Project Management Institute). Effective assessment should align your project portfolio to business strategy and help you understand the dependencies between projects in the program.

Improving communication within the program team and stakeholders and optimizing and rationalizing delivery resources.

7. Carry out project prioritization exercises regularly

Most organisations carry out their major project prioritization exercise once a year.  Usually, it is around the time that new budgets are set which makes sense until you know how much your Leadership team is willing to spend on IT projects you can’t effectively prioritize.

However, I find that many organizations get great value out of more regular prioritization exercises across the year. By revisiting your prioritization decisions you refocus on the business reasons behind them. I know one project manager who schedules prioritization sessions monthly but quarterly or twice a year will yield similar benefits plus you’ll be able to incorporate any new projects that perhaps were not on the radar at the point of your original prioritization.

In conclusion, project prioritization can be performed in many different ways and at varying intervals. While finding the method and timing that is right for you is important the main thing is that you do it!

For most project managers the landscape now is one of limited budgets, restricted resources or simply having more project proposals than you can physically complete combined with greater expectation when it comes to cost versus benefit ratio.

It has never been more important to prioritize.

Remember the Project Management-as-a-Service market is ready to help.