Prioritizing projects

Understand the context in which project prioritization methods are designed and managed. With this foundation you will be enabled to build a well-tuned model for prioritization.

project-planning meeting and materials
Thinkstock

Prioritizing projects is an extremely important activity for any organization, and the need exists for projects from business and operations functions as well as the Information Technology (IT) function. This all-inclusive enterprise view of project prioritization is important because operational projects, construction projects, business development projects, strategic projects, and organizational development projects often compete for the same scarce financial and Human Resources. Therefore, it is extremely beneficial to create a level playing feel where all enterprise projects compete fairly for shared resources. There are many ways to perform prioritization, but before one gets lost in the how, it is important to establish the why, who, and when (WWW) that is driving your prioritization initiative because applying the WWW analysis promotes development of the best prioritization model for the particular company.

Why?

Why do companies need to prioritize projects? What are the primary goals of a prioritization program? Your why is an important factor in helping you design a prioritization program that is right for your organization because one model may do a better job than others of focusing on what is important to your company. Maybe you have a project portfolio of high value initiatives mixed with many managerial whims or nice-to-haves. In this case your prioritization methods should focus on strategic alignment and value creation. Maybe prioritizing projects is most important to you because there are more projects to do than there is money or people to do them. In this scenario your prioritization methods will focus on resource conservation. In another organization maybe all projects under consideration are equally high value proposals and so there is a need to establish the greater good among an all-good portfolio. Even if there is no shortage of financial or Human Resources, prioritization can ensure the best sequence and timing of projects, or the best mix of project costs, returns, and schedules. An often-overlooked reason for prioritizing projects is to improve employee engagement and satisfaction. Very few things frustrate employees more than to suffer constant project starts and subsequent postponements, holds, replacements, and cancellations. It can be a morale killer when employees invest a lot of work in a project only to have the project halted because the sponsors decided it was not such a good project after all. Although shifting priorities are a normal part of any business, we need to eliminate the unnecessary shifts that often take place due to broken project intake procedures and business cases that were not well thought out. These are just a few of the many reasons for developing a project prioritization system. Establishing these why’s will also help you later measure the effectiveness of the new prioritization system.

Who?

Who is creating projects? Who is officially and unofficially approving projects and project budgets? Who is documenting project plans? Who will benefit from project prioritization? Who is in the best position to prioritize the projects being submitted, and who is in the best position to compare each project against all others in the portfolio. When developing a prioritization process it is vital to understand all sources of projects. Without this understanding projects can be pushed into the project portfolio with no opportunity for comparison to others in the portfolio, thereby disrupting the operation of project portfolio management. For example, if building and construction projects are not built into the prioritization process, an unexpected office relocation can cause a scramble to fit this unscheduled submission into existing resource and financial plans of the IT department. Even worse, inaccurate assumptions may be made about the level of importance of this project resulting in postponing a project with a higher level of importance to the enterprise.

When?

When should projects be prioritized? Should they be prioritized after they have already been added to the annual capital plan, or should prioritization be part of the capital approval process? What about unscheduled projects? Should an emergent project be compared against the project portfolio as part of building the business case, or after the business case has qualified the project for consideration? How often should the prioritization counsel meet to ensure vital opportunities are not missed waiting for the next meeting. When should a project not be put through a prioritization process? For example, projects with regulatory implications, especially when they have deadlines, could be designated ‘Just Do-It’ projects. When these ‘Just-Do-It’ projects are encountered, you will need a way to reconcile its resource and financial demands against the rest of the project portfolio.

Rules of Thumb

There are many project prioritization methods and they include everything from very complicated weighted scoring matrixes to a simple majority vote of the group. The method of prioritizing is not nearly as important as having one that everyone agrees on. Focus on keeping your chosen method as simple as possible so the group using it easily understands it and trusts its outcomes. Simplicity also makes it easy to onboard new prioritization committee members. For those who have an aversion to complicated methods I would recommend considering the Delphi method, which simply uses the opinion of experts to come to a prioritization decision.  Delphi is based on the principle that decisions from a structured group of individuals are more accurate than those from unstructured groups. The method uses a technique which relies on a panel of experts answering questionnaires in two or more rounds. After each round, a facilitator provides an anonymized summary of the experts' decisions from the previous round as well as the reasons they provided for their judgments. Thus, experts are encouraged to revise their earlier answers in light of the replies of other members of their panel. It is believed that during this process the range of the answers will decrease, and the group will converge towards the "correct" answer. Finally, the process is stopped after a predefined number of rounds, achievement of consensus, stability of results, or some other established criterion, and the mean or median scores of the final rounds determine the results. However, if the Delphi technique is used care must be taken to ensure people are willing to accept it for the solid scientific approach that it is.

From this discussion you should have gathered that project prioritization is not just about a committee rating the importance of projects. At its best, it involves threading a connected workflow through several departments such as: financial management, facilities and construction, information technology, strategic planning, organizational development, quality and performance improvement, project management office, human resources and others. It also involves linking the different automated financial and intake systems of these departments together in a seamless way so as to provide transparency into the project portfolio, reporting and tracking of project status, and opportunity to rationalize demand against available resources.

This intent of this article was to provide an understanding of the context in which project prioritization methods are designed and managed. With this foundation you will be enabled to build a well-tuned model for prioritization.

This article is published as part of the IDG Contributor Network. Want to Join?

NEW! Download the Fall 2018 digital issue of CIO