Building a Culture of Prioritization

So you’ve done the exercise of prioritizing all the projects in your portfolio. Now you have to decide how to communicate those priorities to your organization.

That’s where many organizations get stuck. Project priorities are assigned, but then are not made transparent to all. The common rationale for this is that management doesn’t want people to ease their foot off the gas pedal if they believe their project is “less important” than others. And so, the list is reserved for management decisions.

This is a mistake.

It is far more effective to build what I call a “culture of prioritization” — where priority becomes ingrained into every resource allocation and conflict discussion.

Publishing the prioritized list is only the first step, especially the top 20 (and, depending on the organization, maybe the top 100) projects. The next step is for the rest of the ecosystem to participate as well, such as functional owners prioritizing the general functional needs for their process area. That, in turn, should feed into the regular portfolio review meetings as input, where the project priorities are reviewed, updated as needed, and resources reallocated as needed.  

When priorities are made transparent to all; discussions are being had in functional groups around priority; and priority is driving continuous resource allocation in portfolio review meetings; then it can be said that a “culture of prioritization” is present. 

Part of that is a willingness to stop or defer lower priority work if needed, and that’s where the catch-22 often lies, because everything on an approved project list is, by default, important.

Still. some are more important than others.

Feasibility and Prioritization

An insistence on delivering “low priority projects” on time, or stating that “every project is equally critical” shows that the organization is ignoring feasibility, and will as a result not only jeopardize the lower priority projects by over-promising and under-delivering, they’ll jeopardize the high priority projects by robbing them of needed resources. 

What does this have to do with keeping the priority list under wraps? Everything.

Keeping the priority list exclusive to management not only underestimates the intelligence of people to deliver on projects they’re assigned, it exacerbates the problem. If resources are working on two projects and they’re struggling to get their tasks on both completed, wouldn’t it be beneficial to the organization for them to make sure they commit their focus to the one that will impact a critical time window?

It’s all about protecting your highest priorities, while still making room for other important projects where feasible. And it should be no surprise that proper resource planning and re-allocation is at the heart of it all.

Of course, certain prerequisites must be met before sharing the priority list. If the organization isn’t willing to commit to these caveats, then sharing the list will backfire and create even more conflict. These caveats include:

  • Explicitly stating that management will focus on securing the strategic and urgent priorities and moving them through faster, even if it puts other projects off track of their schedule commitments. And of course, this includes setting new baselines for projects that were delayed due to management decision.
  • For lower priority projects, the schedule should be based on resource availability to begin with, and any additional resource risks should be called out in a risk plan. Keep in mind, resource allocation should ideally be based on priority, so by nature the schedule for lower priority projects will be stretched out. For high probability resource risks beyond that, buffers should be included in the schedule (or alternatively, external resources could be brought in to address gaps if deemed appropriate).  
  • Leaders should be conditioned to accept that projects higher in the priority list will be more likely to finish without delays due to resource issues. They may have other issues of course, but shouldn’t have resource issues.  Projects lower on the pecking order will be more likely to have resource constraints, and the schedule will consider that accordingly.
  • Lower priority projects should be reframed. Lower priority does not mean unimportant. Again, it should be communicated that everything on the list is important, but not equally important. The importance of the lower priority work can be reinforced with clear benefits stated in the business case.

In any case, it should be clear that the benefits of transparency outweigh the risks. At the very least, the parts of the organization responsible for resource allocation (e.g., functional/portfolio owners) need to be aware of the priority list, especially the resource managers and project sponsors, who need to understand which items have the highest priority. Otherwise, they’re allocating blindly and/or making poor staffing decisions. But if project managers and their resources run into conflicts, it would be beneficial if they, too, understood where to place their focus.

Jerry Manas

Jerry Manas

Jerry is the bestselling author of The Resource Management and Capacity Planning Handbook, Napoleon on Project Management, and more. At PDWare, Jerry helps clients improve strategy execution through tools and processes that align people and work with organizational priorities. Connect with Jerry on Twitter and LinkedIn

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