Mastering Project Prioritization: How to Focus on High-Impact Initiatives
Does it feel like your team says “yes” to everything?
Do you have the tendency to lose focus and divert attention over seemingly random shiny things that present themselves?
Does there appear to be no rhyme or reason in organizational decision-making around which projects and initiatives move forward and in what order?
Do you scratch your head about project prioritization - which projects and initiatives receive resources and which ones do not?
Are you a leader struggling to effectively prioritize competing projects and initiatives?
If you answered “yes” to any or all of these questions, this blog is for you.
First things first - don’t worry, you are not alone! Fundamentally, all things trend toward disorder. Humans - and therefore organizations - are no exception. In fact, disorder is not a mistake; it is our default.
Rearranging projects and initiatives into an “ordered” state to create maximum impact requires immense planning, consistent focus, and relentless action.
And it requires prioritization.
What is Prioritization?
Prioritization is the act of determining the relative importance or urgency of a thing or things.
There are three levels of organizational prioritization to consider:
1 - Strategic. Strategic Priorities help organizations to focus on three specific areas that address high impact/likelihood risks while moving the organization toward its vision. These should be identified and aligned to during the strategic planning process.
2 - Project/Initiative. This is prioritization between or among seemingly competing projects and initiatives. Prioritizing projects and initiatives help organizations further maximize their resources and impact by narrowing their focus within each Strategic Priority.
3 - Task/Action. This is the prioritization of tasks and actions within one project or initiative. Prioritizing tasks and actions within projects help organizations identify strategy timelines, dependencies, constraints, must-haves, and nice-to-haves, and helps tactically move projects forward with clarity and speed for maximum impact.
This blog addresses level two (how to prioritize among projects and initiatives that support the Strategic Priorities identified in your Strategic Plan) and level three (how to prioritize tasks within a project).
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Why should you Prioritize strategic projects/Initiatives?
Organizations have finite resources - time, people, and money. So do humans - namely, time and energy. When humans are asked to pay attention to a ton of projects equally, there are mental and physical costs incurred when switching focus among them - this is called a switching cost.
The primary purpose of prioritization as a business practice is to focus/invest finite resources on a few right things done really well versus a bunch of right-ish (or wrong) things done poorly.
Project Prioritization among and within strategic initiatives helps organizations to:
- Decide what to do and when to do it.
- Determine what not to do.
- Identify where to allocate resources (time, people, and finances).
- Ensure essential projects and initiatives are executed to drive forward their Strategic Plan.
- Enhance employee productivity and efficiency (people can make the best use of their time and energy by not splitting their focus).
- Maintain focus on what’s most important.
Ultimately, implementing project prioritization as a regular practice is one way to guide decision making in alignment with an organization’s vision, mission, values, and Strategic Priorities at all levels of an organization. This helps improve team alignment and increases the speed, efficiency, and effectiveness with which organizations can move forward their Strategic Plans.
But, first thing’s first - let’s talk about how to get started with prioritizing your current strategic projects and initiatives.
STEP 1: Take inventory of all strategic projects and initiatives across the organization.
Not all projects are strategic in nature. The first step in prioritizing the projects and initiatives that will move forward your strategic plan is to bring together your leadership team and make a list of all strategic projects and initiatives.
To determine whether a project/initiative is strategic, it must pass three criteria:
- Does it directly support one or more of the organization’s top 3 Strategic Priorities?
- Is it aligned with our organizational mission + values?
- Will it advance the team toward its organizational vision?
If a project or initiative does not pass all three criteria, it doesn’t make it an unimportant or unworthy project. It could simply mean the project is either operational in nature or something the organization is not going to pursue right now.
Once you’ve vetted all projects/initiatives to ensure they are strategic, it’s onto Step 2.
How to Set Strategic Priorities in Your Plan
STEP 2: Map all strategic projects/initiatives on a prioritization matrix.
There’s no shortage of business frameworks teams can use to prioritize their strategic projects and initiatives. Here, we’ve picked the Impact/Effort Matrix for ease of use and simplicity. This matrix helps you map projects along lines of the effort involved (resource intensiveness) and the impact or value that it will have for/on your organization.
This matrix is mainly a tool to drive alignment among your leadership team as to which strategic projects to focus on now, which to plan for next, which to plan for last, and which to remove.
Top Left: High Impact-Low Effort (aka, “low-hanging fruit”) - DO NOW!
These are projects/initiatives where you can make quick gains because they are low effort but have a high or immediate impact. Consider prioritizing these projects first.
Top Right: High Impact-High Effort - DO NEXT!
While projects and initiatives in this quadrant will have high impact, they will also require high effort to implement. Consider developing cohesive project plans with deadlines and ensuring that every item has a person who is accountable for it. Consider delegating wherever possible to spread the workload among those with capacity (and within the correct roles) to ensure that deadlines are met.
Bottom Right: Low Impact-High Effort - DO LAST!
This quadrant contains projects or initiatives you should consider deprioritizing for your organization. Because these are both low impact and high effort, they will be resource-intensive without a lot of return on investment. Determine if the items in this quadrant are important enough to be done at all. If so, prioritize them last and delegate work to junior team members. If not, do not focus on these items!
Bottom Left: Low Impact-Low Effort - DO NEVER!
While these projects and initiatives have a relatively lower impact for your organization, they also take relatively less effort to implement. Consider if the resulting impact of these projects is high enough to move forward or not. If yes, consider delegating work to supporting team members with discretionary time.
STEP 3: Prioritize action items within your projects and initiatives.
Now that you’ve identified your “do now” and “do next” projects and initiatives, the next step is to plan for and manage their successful execution. One of many project management practices you’ll employ is determining which tasks or actions need to be completed for each project and in what order to ensure the overall project is delivered in accordance with identified time, scope, and budget.
(Note: This is not a blog on project management, but if you want to learn more about how SME Strategy can support your organization’s implementation of basic project management practices, check out the video below:
Again, there’s no shortage of frameworks to help teams identify and prioritize tasks that make up a project or initiative. The technique we will explore in this blog is called MoSCoW.
MoSCoW is a framework used to assess the items a project Must have (Mo), Should have (S), Could have (Co), and Won’t have (W). It serves to unify stakeholders and team members around project tasks and their priorities and helps teams identify what a project looks like as a Minimum Viable Product (MVP).
Begin by inviting your team to come together having already identified all the tasks they believe make up the project you’re planning. As a team work through each task and sort into one of four categories:
Mo - Must Haves
Must Haves are tasks or requirements the project absolutely needs to include without question. These are non-negotiable items needed to successfully deliver the project on time, on scope, on budget, safely, and legally. Must Have items, if all completed, will help you create a Minimal Viable Product (MVP) for what project success looks like. These items should be included in your project plan and be high-priority.
S - Should Haves
Should Haves are tasks or requirements the project would benefit from but aren’t critical to the completed project MVP. They are important, but not vital, items whose absence could cause pain points in project completion. If absence of a task creates too strong a pain, prioritize it as a Should Have; if the pain is low, deprioritize accordingly, potential into the next category…
Co - Could Haves
Could Have tasks or requirements are basically “nice-to-haves;” items that you might want to have but aren’t important in delivering the project to MVP. These should be included in the project plan as items to tackle if time and budget allow without sacrificing MVP.
W - Won’t Haves
Won’t Haves are tasks or requirements you won’t be including in this project because they add little to no value to the project’s business case. It’s important to keep these items recorded in project documentation as deprioritized in the instance questions arise around them during the project lifecycle.
Once all tasks have been categorized, you will be able to clearly see which tasks need to be prioritized because they are crucial to project completion, which tasks would be nice to have given extra time and money, and which tasks to deprioritize entirely (at least this time around).
Prioritizing is a complicated process that involves weighing many factors including cost, impact, value, effort, time, and stakeholder opinions. And prioritization happens at many levels of an organization. The frameworks laid out in this blog help simplify how to prioritize among and within your strategic projects and initiatives to ensure maximum impact and the forward movement of your most important Strategic Priorities.
Are you a large organization struggling to prioritize your projects? Do you feel like your team is not fully engaged and aligned with your goals? A strategic planning facilitator can make a significant difference.
At SME Strategy, we specialize in guiding our clients through the crucial project prioritization phase of the strategic planning process. Our Aligned Strategy Development process and One Destination Model are tailored to ensure that all team members are on board and working towards a common goal. We understand that the success of any project relies heavily on having everyone clear and in agreement on the project's direction and objectives.
If you want to take your project prioritization process to the next level, contact us today and see the positive outcomes that a strategic planning facilitator can bring to your organization!