10 Tell-Tale Signs You Need Project Prioritization

7 minute read

Sara Whitwer

The latest request comes in from an executive: Can you coordinate the completion of this new work because it’s got board approval and is a high priority project.

If you juggle things around you can, but that means something else has to stop to free up the people to do the new work. Or are you expected to put in the extra hours and get this new project completed while still hitting all the deadlines for everything else?

Something’s got to give before your staff walkout – and it sounds like it’s time to look at the project prioritization process.

How is your project prioritization process working out? Here are 10 tell-tale signs that it’s time to look again at the way you take on new projects.

1. You’ve got more project requests than resources

It’s great to have lots of new ideas, but let’s be realistic: you don’t have the people to work on all of them.

Requestors get frustrated that they don’t know if their project will ever be worked on. All the good ideas seem to go into a big bucket and no one knows what happens to them next.

When you’ve got lots of potential projects and not enough people to go round, you have to prioritize your work.

2. Every project is ‘critical’

Is your approach to managing project prioritization subjective? It doesn’t take long for people to work out that when projects are categorized as critical, high, medium or low priority, only the critical projects get approved.

Suddenly, everything is critical, and everyone is working overtime trying to get the ‘critical’ projects delivered. The resource pool hasn’t increased – but people have got smarter about how they frame their project so it gets added into an already busy workload.

This is the road to burnout! Time to prioritize.

3. Approvals are based on internal politics

Office politics reign supreme! In other words, the person who shouts the loudest gets their projects moved up the prioritization list – even if their projects aren’t the best ones for the business to be focusing on.

In this situation, no one knows what the approval criteria are – or even if they exist at all. If you wrote a list of criteria for prioritizing projects, would your colleagues in a different team write the same list?

When project prioritization is highly political, there is no standardization in how projects are approved or worked on. That makes it hard to introduce reliable, repeatable processes – which are essential if you want to reliably deliver projects time after time.

4. Staff are frequently reallocated on to different projects

How many times do your subject matter experts and project leads have to switch focus to the latest urgent priority?

You know that multi-tasking is an inefficient way of managing your To Do list. The same holds true for organizational inefficiency. If you keep switching people between projects, the work takes longer and is delivered in a less thought-through, cohesive way.

5. Lots of projects are ‘on hold’

A critical project has appeared on the list, so work in progress goes on hold while resources are redeployed on to the urgent work.

When this happens frequently you end up with a long list of half-finished projects with the status ‘on hold’. Will they ever get started again? There’s a high probability that those on hold projects may never get their resources back – and that work is wasted.

6. Teams are frustrated

It’s human nature to want to finish things and to know that your work is making a difference. People want to see that their tasks are contributing to the bigger picture. They want to know their effort is linked to organizational strategy and that they are having a positive impact.

You don’t feel valued if you are constantly fire-fighting, starting new work, being told something else is a priority and struggling to stay on top of your To Do list.

Your colleagues will see through the chaos and realize that there is no clear project management approach or business strategy in place. Chaotic management leads to resignations.

7. Only projects with financial returns are approved

Yes, your business needs to make money. A focus on delivering projects that are tangibly linked to profits and return on investment could be a good thing. But there should be a balance in the portfolio.

If money is the driving force behind the prioritization approach, projects that deliver hard-to-measure customer or staff satisfaction improvements, compliance, or process improvements will always fall to the bottom of the list. And it should go without saying that often those projects need just as much focus as the ones with a good ROI.

An objective prioritization process ensures that projects are selected on a broad definition of ‘merit’.

8. Only low-risk projects are approved

Approving the low-risk projects might seem like a sensible business approach. After all, you don’t want to introduce too much risk into the business. However, if you only ever work on low-risk projects, you’ll never gain any of the benefits of doing slightly riskier work. You’ll never break into new markets or try out something innovative. And your business will stagnate because of it.

Risk is something to manage carefully, which is why it’s important to have a full portfolio view of all the change initiatives happening at any one time. With project management software that helps aggregate and surface risks across the portfolio, you can easily see whether you’re making smart business choices and keeping project risk in balance across multiple initiatives.

9. Each department sets their own priorities

This approach to project prioritization might work… if none of the projects rely on using subject matter experts from other areas. Departments may be able to manage their own resource allocation and scheduling, but when you need a cross-functional team to work on something that affects multiple areas, will the resources you need be available?

Probably not.

The challenge with each area setting their own prioritization criteria for projects is that they might not choose to work on the same thing. You end up with a disconnected work portfolio that might serve individual business units but doesn’t deliver a cohesive business strategy overall.

Prioritization at the corporate level will sort that out.

10. Projects fail. A lot.

Finally, if your project failure rate is higher than you would like, it’s time to look at the prioritization process. Are you really making the right choices for the work? Are the right projects making it to the top of the pile, or are people working on a random collection of initiatives for the managers who complain the loudest?

Projects fail when they don’t have management support, where they aren’t aligned to business goals and where the team doesn’t have a clear vision – and many, many project management research studies highlight leadership at executive levels as a core reason for project failure.

Your business is too good to be carrying failing and on-hold projects. Isn’t it time you took another look at how your projects get prioritized?

For additional tips and insights about project, program and portfolio maturity, consider these additional resources:

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