Project Practitioners > Prioritizing Project Work

Prioritizing Project Work

By Randy Englund

Any attempt at leading change in how an organization links projects to strategy is bound to meet resistance. The concept of prioritizing receives almost unanimous intellectual support. Implementing it into the heart and soul of all people in the organization is another story. Forced prioritization goes against the cultural norms in many organizations and conjures up all kinds of resistance if the values it espouses are not the norm in that organization. The path is full of pitfalls, especially if information is presented carelessly or perceived as final when it is work-in-process.

A model used to prioritize project needs to be thorough and integrate objective and subjective data. When all is said and done, however, people may throw out the results and make a different decision. Sometimes the reason is a hunch, an instinct, or simply a desire to try something different. Sometimes people have a pet project and use the process to justify its existence, or a hidden agenda may be at play—perhaps the need to maneuver among colleagues, trading projects for favors. Politics at this stage cannot be ignored, nor are they likely to disappear. It is imperative for leaders to become skilled in the political process.

Some people resist because a process is too analytical. Some want decision-making to be purely interactive, intuitive, or the purview of a few people. A complete process cannot be forced upon people if the organization has more immediate concerns or unresolved issues. Resistance occurs when there is no strategy, the strategy is unclear, or people are uncomfortable with the strategy. Work on the process may come to a standstill when people realize how much work is involved to fully link projects to strategy. If the pain is not great enough with the status quo, people are not ready to change.

When people sense that the leader does not authentically believe in any of the elements, such as the goals, the process, or the tools, they are hesitant to follow with any enthusiasm. When the leader lacks integrity and exhibits incongruity between words and actions, people may go through the motions but do not exert an appropriate effort to achieve meaningful results.

Getting It Done

It is possible to lead people through a change process that prioritizes project work if the leader asks many questions, listens to the concerns of all people involved, and seeks to build support so that people feel they have an active role in developing the process that is going to be used. A flexible process works better than a rigid one. Cultivate “champions” who have the credibility and fortitude to carry the process across the organization. Believe that change is possible.

When the effort appears too massive, one approach is to go after the low-hanging fruit. Start with one of the more pressing issues to address. Have a vision for what the organization can ultimately achieve but understand that patience and pacing are necessary to get there.

Consider also that a good process is hierarchical—it can be applied singularly or collectively, up and down the organization. A mental model of linking projects to strategy is like fractals and chaos theory. As a viewer moves through layers, each is a reduced-size copy of the whole, exhibiting all its similar but chaotic traits—unpredictable and sensitive to small changes. Eventually successes or small wins get noticed. The practices start to permeate an organization. This can happen in the middle, move up, and then over to other parts of the organization.

Organizations that prioritize project work increase their odds for greater success. This happens because teams of people following a systematic process and using convincing data to support their arguments more often produce better results than individuals. Their projects have more visibility, and the quality of dialogue and decision making improve. The power of using criteria that is tightly linked with strategy and known by everyone in the organization is the mitigating effect it has to guide behavior in constructive ways. Having a process means it can be replicated and improved over time until it is optimized. It also means other people can learn the process and coach others, thereby creating a learning organization.

A Case Study Example

One team I worked with needed to prioritize the criteria it would use to assess potential projects in its portfolio. Through brainstorming in break-out teams, it came up with the four criteria and definitions shown in this table:

Table 1
Weighting the criteria happened with thanks to J. Davidson Frame, who first offered a “poor man's hierarchy”. Put projects or selection criteria along the side as well as across the top of a grid. If the item on the side is preferred to the one on the top, put a 1 in the cell. If the item on top is preferred, put a 0 in the cell. A modified approach is to replace the 1s and 0s with an actual count of how people on the deciding team vote in each pairwise comparison of alternatives. Diagonals are blanked out where items would be compared to themselves. Below the diagonal, put the opposite value from corresponding cells above the diagonal. For example, if 18 people are making judgments and 16 prefer Business as a deciding factor over Customer, put 16 in the top cell and 2 in the opposite cell. Then add up the numbers across the rows to get total scores, which provide a rank order. Add up the column and normalize the results for a priority order and weighted ranking (see Figure).

Picture table
This simplified hierarchy is especially helpful for weighting criteria. It can be used for prioritizing projects when applied for one criterion at a time. It becomes bulky and less useful when applied to multiple projects over multiple criteria.

This process could appear complex and analytical but is easy when a spreadsheet handles the computations. The management team concentrates on the comparisons. It is thorough in guiding the team to consider all aspects of a decision, both emotional and logical, and to apply them to all projects.

The key benefit in doing this process is the improved quality of dialogue that occurs among team members. In facilitating a number of teams through this process, I found that each one achieved far more progress than they thought possible. People admit that they become addicted to the process. The systematic approach is feasible whether selecting products for a product line, projects that comprise a portfolio, selecting the best supplier or candidate for a job. In reality, the discussions are more valuable than the analysis. The process in this case provides the discipline that makes the dialogue happen.

If you can make it to Madrid, Spain on July 1-2, join me and a fantastic team of speakers to discuss models and approaches to prioritizing project work at the Project Portfolio Days. Get more information at

Randy Englund, Englund Project Management Consultancy

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