Prioritization | 6 Important prioritization tips

by Jan Schiller

Prioritization is a powerful activity essential to an organization’s success. When your day is dominated by a work whirlwind filled with several things to do and every one of them due yesterday, prioritizing adds structure that allows you and your teams to tackle that whirlwind. These six tips can help you prioritize your project portfolio, your product backlog, and your life. 

  1. Someone must catch the work before it can be prioritized. Do you know what your organization is working on today? Gather all the work that needs to be done, then categorize the work into buckets that make sense (for example, “operational,” “project,” and “maintenance” work). The goal is to provide universal and consistent transparency to a single list of work. Without that insight, attempts to prioritize will be incomplete and somewhat futile. 
  2. Stakeholders must trust and understand the prioritization process. Involve stakeholders in defining and refining that process, it should be focused on assessing the merit of the work relative to strategic outcomes. Importance and priority are related but separate topics; all items on the list can be important, but only one item at a time is the most important. Consistent application of the prioritization process will provide valuable results over the longer term.
  3. Some work may not need to be prioritized. Identifying the work, or categories of work, where prioritizing does not add any significant value, will save time and effort. If the status of each work item is identified, the team can focus on prioritizing active work before moving on to pending work. Prioritize ideas only after the organization decides the idea is worth pursuing. 
  4. Stakeholders need to own the scoring model. Developing the framework and criteria for scoring, as well as calculating the overall score for each item, can be daunting. Should the overall score be a sum of the scores for each criterion or a multiplier? Should the scores for each item be weighted? What do the values of each weight mean? Everyone must understand and agree with the scoring model before the prioritization effort will be successful.
  5. Allow three weeks to work the process. Mandating a priority or allowing only a short amount of time to agree on priorities are two ways to ensure that people will not honor or respect the priority. Allow the exchange of ideas and the dialogue to occur naturally, so people with a vested interest in their top priorities have time to explore differing points of view. To gain traction, consider focusing first on the easiest items to prioritize. For example, perhaps everyone on the prioritization team could agree that the lowest priority items can be deferred. Plan to spend the most time discretely prioritizing the work. There can be only one “number one” priority. If your list has several “high” priority items, you have successfully ranked your list but have not prioritized it.
  6. Consider using the analytical hierarchy process (AHP) and related tools if you are stuck. Using a structured technique to organize many elements pertaining to a decision may help a team more objectively analyze that information and make a better decision. The pair-wise nature of the AHP can help focus the team if the list of work to be prioritized is overwhelming or when vastly different points of view exist. 

The structure that prioritization provides helps focus an organization’s limited resources on the work that matters most to the organization. Stop launching projects after all resources have been committed. When project portfolio management best practices are applied, it will become immediately evident when the resources required to move on to the next item on the list are not available.


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