I remember my favourite project portfolio prioritisation session vividly. I asked each executive director to provide a one-page summary and 30-second speech for each initiative that they wanted to undertake the following financial year. Then they took turns to stand up and present these to their peers.
I gave them a sheet that enabled them to grade each key element of the project being presented and at the end (before we left the room) I collated the scores and produced a list of the 1-82 projects. Their goal was to then agree the top ten, top 25 and top 50.
We proved the previous year that we could resource and complete 55 projects but the record of meeting stakeholder expectations was poor, so I set the number at 50.
The whole process took three and a half hours. There were laughs, verbal jousting, howls of derision, structured discussion and some (well behaved) arguments. We confidently published the top 50 and set about delivering them the next year.
Halfway through the year, we re-evaluated what had been completed and talked about what was left to do. I ran the workshop again and we halved the number of projects.
That year we delivered 57 projects and met the expectations of the stakeholders on 75 per cent of them. Crucially, people believed in what was being done and had the confidence from day one that we could achieve everything that we planned to do.
If you don’t run a similar process, there are several dangers:
- You don’t have a shared view of what’s important and what’s not
- The portfolio may contain numerous ‘pet’ projects that have little ROI
- You plan to do too much
- You end up doing the wrong projects in the wrong order
- You over promise on the benefits of your projects
What I see all too often is a willingness to deliver in the right way, but an over-reliance on a complex spreadsheet full of weightings during strategic planning to tell you what the most important thigs are.
Once we get into the financial year, there’s no consensus on what needs to be done and when and we have ‘over egged’ the benefits to the point where there’s no belief that we can achieve what we promised. Money and time is wasted and staff morale and culture suffers.
Like most things in the project management world, it’s completely avoidable.
When it comes to prioritisation, I’ve always believed in Stephen R. Covey’s ‘First Things First’ model. If you’re not familiar with it, here it is:
When it comes to prioritising your projects, or putting the plan together for next year, here’s how to use Dr Covey’s model.
I – Anything that is broken and like to affect business as usual; anything that is deadline driven, or any project that helps you exploits an opportunity needs to be in the first 1-6 months. In reality, if you want to start these projects on July 1, then you need to have the planning completed by June 30th, otherwise you’re going to start behind.
II – Most of your projects will fit into the important/not urgent and need to be planned in accordance with their ROI. For example, if a project will give you a return within six months, it makes sense to do this first as you may see the returns this financial year.
III – Projects that are urgent but not important should be scheduled towards the end of the financial year, however, providing you haven’t over committed resources, these are the ones you can bring forward should they become important. You should only ever plan to commit 75 per cent of your capacity in order to accommodate the unknowns.
IV – Everything in here is likely to be a pet project and should be put on a ‘if we get the time and money, we’ll do it’ list. If you want to be more efficient, then you should kill these at the strategic planning stage and ask the sponsor to bring it back next year.
Once you have prioritised your portfolio, you should revisit it at least quarterly to ensure that you’re still doing the first things first and in the right way. I haven’t worked with an organisation yet that fully delivered the portfolio they planned at the business planning stage.
To respond to market conditions and the changing organisational landscape, consistently replanning the portfolio is critical for success and morale.
How do you prioritise yours?
Colin Ellis is the author of The Conscious Project Leader and works with organisations to transform their cultures (regardless of methods used) and help them deliver projects successfully every time. You can find out more about him and his work at www.colindellis.com.
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