Ruthless project prioritization in project environments

by Shawn Belling

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 

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 for 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.

Analysis paralysis 

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, and 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.

Avoiding these problem scenarios requires a regular and ruthless prioritization process for departments, divisions, and strategic projects. This seems obvious, but many organizations lack this or the ability to coordinate execute it at critical times. 

Like security or disaster planning, ruthless and rigorous prioritization cannot be reactive or situational. It must become as routine and natural as coming to work, and it becomes easier to sustain over time. In organizations where this is the norm, any pause or deviation from this cadence is impactful. The organization comes to rely on the process, even taking it for granted. This is a good thing – it means everyone at all levels is bought in, the rhythm is there, and it is a natural business process.

The challenge is getting this in place. Like all change, it requires a realization of the problem and the importance of fixing it. Once an organization follows through on the commitment to put a rigorous prioritization process in place, they must stick to it every week. From the CEO down, there must be an environment of accountability and rigor in assessing priorities and recognition of the critical role of constrained resources as engines of value creation: They can be driven hard, but selectively, and only when priorities support this, lest you burn them out.

Ruthless prioritization means having a vital few projects with senior leaders accountable for ranking them and acting accordingly. It means senior leaders are willing to make and have the data and process to support decisions such as:

  • Pulling resources off an important project and dealing with the fallout in order to execute on a more important project.
  • Delaying or canceling “nice to have” projects that please some stakeholders but create little or no value or competitive advantage.
  • Stopping some projects to take advantage of a window of opportunity and accept that a near-complete product release might slip.
  • Appeasing an angry customer for one more sprint in order to ship a near-complete product release – or the exact opposite – delay the release to fix the angry customer situation.

Finally, it means scrutinizing the project and product portfolio every two to four weeks without fail and revisiting decisions if new or changed conditions warrant. Does your organization know how to ruthlessly prioritize?


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