Why having too many priorities is counterproductive to your top priority

by Jan Schiller

Too many project priorities or competing priorities? Having more than one priority is the quickest way to diminish all of your priorities, especially your top priority. According to Dictionary.com, the word “priority” was coined around 1400, and it was not plural. Your organization’s top project priorities are more likely to be achieved effectively when other competing priorities are not a distraction. It’s crucial that project managers clearly communicate priorities.

“Priority” is not the same as “importance”

Hopefully, you work in an organization where every project portfolio has important programs and projects that deliver a strategy (and none that are not). Priority determines the right to take precedence for supplies, services, and resources when there are not enough supplies, services, and resources to go around. It is a means of identifying what effort can trump another effort if resources become scarce. Without priority, your organization is likely spending a lot of time and money discussing what effort gets the scarce resources while the projects and programs in your project portfolio struggle. Hardly a leading indicator of success.

Priority is not defined by ‘High,’ ‘Medium’ or ‘Low’

Often companies have multiple, sometimes competing priorities and goals. Does your organization have a long list of goals to accomplish, where each one is assigned a ‘high,’ ‘medium’ or ‘low’ priority? How many efforts are assigned a ‘high’ priority? Does each department or division have one effort rated as a ‘high’ priority? If you have more than one ‘high’ priority effort in your organization, you lack the structure necessary to make a decision on which effort receives scarce resources. Prioritize at least the list of ‘high’ priority efforts discreetly, starting with ‘1’, moving on to ‘2’, etcetera. The larger your organization, the more time it may take to agree on that discreet prioritization. Do not rush the process! The investment you make upfront will pay itself off every time you review the list during times of tight resources and are able to quickly make decisions on how your project portfolio should be adjusted.

Clear priorities result in improved productivity

Discreet prioritization reveals just how much teams can accomplish. According to The 4 Disciplines of Execution, “The more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish.” The authors share their observation that when a team sets four to ten goals, they usually achieve one or two. Little’s Law provides a mathematical theorem describing the same reality as it relates to lead time and throughout the project (Little & Graves, n.d.). Derek Deprey discusses having fewer goals with more focus. Agile software development best practices discuss the importance of limiting work in progress. Success depends on the luxury of focus. Discreetly prioritizing efforts does not mean only the top priority can be active; remember, prioritization is a way to support quick and informed decision-making in the event that resources become scarce.    

Priorities must be communicated

If you asked every one of your project and program managers to identify the project portfolio’s top priority, would their answer be the same as yours? Your discretely prioritized goals and objectives can effectively improve your teams’ productivity only if everyone understands that priority. Be sure to communicate priorities thoroughly and often.

There is nothing more powerful than an expectation, especially when it comes to prioritization. Expect that your team focuses on the top priority first. What is your top priority? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts and top priorities.


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