In environments where everything is a top priority, nothing is a top priority. A key responsibility of senior leadership is ruthless project prioritization, leaving no doubt as to the organization’s top projects. There are four common scenarios where failure to ruthlessly prioritize impedes project execution:
The compromise scenario comes from fear of slowing some “important” projects in favor of other projects and pushes leaders to a poor compromise. No tough decisions are made, no projects are paused or deprived of resources, and all projects continue. Resources are diluted and spread thinly across these projects, reducing progress to a crawl. By prioritizing too many things, the organization makes minimal progress on many projects but makes no value-creating progress on any. Compromising on prioritization also compromises competitive advantage.
Do it all
This scenario asks teams and resources to work eighty-hour weeks to make measurable progress on multiple “priority” projects. Sometimes this is necessary in early phases of start-ups, and rare “bet the company” scenarios where this approach is warranted for a short, intense time. Too often, the eighty-hour week solution is senior leaders’ failure to prioritize vital few projects, combined with a willingness to place the burden of failure to prioritize on their teams and resources. In the short term, this tactic can yield results. Beyond a few months, any accelerated value delivery is unsustainable. Long-term, this tactic burns out teams, creates toxic workplaces and causes high turnover.
Slightly less destructive is the analysis paralysis scenario. This emerges when the organization’s senior leaders have a low urgency to prioritize and direct project teams and resources accordingly. Instead, their repeated requests for “what-ifs” burn cycles from key resources, create zero value, create a false impression of careful consideration while concealing indecisiveness. Organizations afflicted with analysis paralysis can’t advance their key projects. Team morale suffers as they perform low-value work while developing scenarios for consideration at the next project review meeting. When a decision is finally made, too much time has been lost, and effort wasted that could have been saved by decisive leadership through ruthless prioritization.
All projects are a high priority
Worst-case scenario – senior leaders telling subordinates to treat everything as a top priority and “find a way.”
Prioritization is not easy. Senior leaders put their reputation, credibility, and even their career on the line with these decisions. This partially justifies their compensation and perks. The expectation is leaders know their business, strategy, and teams, and therefore can make these tough calls. That is why it is unacceptable to pass tough priority decisions and consequences to subordinates when senior leaders are literally paid to prioritize.
Shawn Belling, M.S., PMP, PMI-ACP, CSP, is a globally-experienced project management practitioner and instructor. He is a senior consultant for Farwell Project Advisors LLC and has held executive and management roles in software, consulting, bio-pharma, manufacturing, and regulatory compliance sectors. Shawn is also adjunct faculty at the University of Wisconsin with over 25 years of project and program management leadership experience. He teaches, speaks and consults on various project management topics and was awarded a PMI Kerzner Scholarship in 2008. Shawn writes about methodologies and project planning.