Strategic alignment is a buzzword that you’ll hear in project management circles at the moment. It means making sure that the projects you are working on are the ones that will make it possible for you to achieve your strategy.
Those projects should be the top of your prioritization list, but in real life it’s often harder to prioritize projects than that. It’s not practical to put your top people on the strategic projects and assume that’s enough. Real prioritization is a fine balance of keeping the business going and moving it forward.
Here are some tips for managing your own project priorities.
Tip #1: Use Your PMO
The first point of call for project prioritization is the PMO. It’s their job to work out priorities based on assessment criteria, business cases and whatever prioritization method you use internally.
They can only do that if they have access to the latest senior management priorities and a view of corporate strategy. The PMO team must know what they are aligning projects to in order for that prioritization effort to be the most effective.
Make sure that your PMO is tied into the strategic discussions, and that they are aware of the shifting business objectives as they happen. It’s fine to pivot mid-way through a year if the business environment requires it, but unless that information is passed on to the PMO then they’ll still be managing, reporting and allocating work to resources based on the last set of strategic priorities they were privy to.
This is less of a problem in organizations where the PMO is corporate-wide and has board-level representation. If your PMO is embedded in a department you’ll have to ensure that department and corporate priorities are equally considered in order to align the work most effectively to help the company achieve its overall goals.
Tip #2: Plan The Strategic Stuff
You can’t ignore the strategic projects, so they should take top billing on your priority list. The difficulty here is coming up with a way to objectively score and rank projects in line with their strategic fit.
Your PMO should be able to advise on project assessment criteria and how strategic alignment fits into that. It could be as something as straightforward as a score out of 10 with a higher score meaning it makes a great contribution to hitting the organizational objectives. If your strategy lends itself to project categorization then that could also be a good way to work out how much an individual project will contribute: see how many categories it fits into.
Tip #3: Plan The Easy Stuff
There will be gaps in your project schedules, because that’s how projects work. Once you’ve packed out the calendar of your top resources with their work on strategic projects, they’ll have periods where they are less busy.
Look at what you have in the pipeline of projects that could fill those gaps. These could be projects with no particular time pressure: a resource could complete his or her work and then the project could be parked again until the next person is available to do their tasks. Or they could be short pieces of work, enhancements or small fixes that would slot into a slack week.
It’s good to have a pot of these smaller tasks so that if someone is unexpectedly available to take on additional work you can go to the list and select something that’s a good fit for their skills and can be completed in the available time.
You need an effective resource management approach and the software to support it if you want to make the most of the slower periods by allocating smaller, easier work in those gaps.
Tip #4: Plan For Speedy Benefits
Another factor to consider when prioritizing work is making sure that you can get the benefits as quickly as possible. If you have two projects with the same strategic alignment and the requirement for similar resources, it’s best to choose to start the one that brings in benefits most quickly.
The faster you can complete a project, the faster the deliverable can start turning a profit or bringing in revenue for the company. Delaying the start of a project with financial benefits can impact your cost projections – not good if you have investors who are expecting a return.
You can also look at benefits within a project. Could you change the order of the tasks or phases so that the project delivers quick wins or some kind of benefit earlier? If you can change the project management approach so that you aren’t delivering everything at the very end you might be able to recognize some benefits earlier.
Tip #5: Recognize Conflict
Prioritization means that some projects will not be at the top of the list. That’s just how it is: someone’s initiative is the most important and everyone else’s is not.
For project sponsors and senior managers who find their work falls some way down the list, that can be uncomfortable. This can cause conflict, and you should brace for it.
It could be an issue of ego, or simply that they believe their project is essential – and it might be, in their world. If your stakeholders seem unhappy with the way the priorities have shaken out then you do need to give them time to air their opinions. There may have been a flaw with how the prioritization process worked: perhaps their business case wasn’t clear and with more detail their project would have ranked more highly.
However, the bottom line is that someone’s project has to be bottom. Help your management community see the bigger picture and explain why their initiative has taken the place it has.
Prioritizing projects can be scientific if you have the modelling software and supporting processes to make it so. Or you can manage perfectly well with a simple list. What is non-negotiable is that you have a set of criteria against which you score projects, taking into account the factors listed above and others. A set of prioritization criteria takes the emotion and ego out of choosing the order of work, and makes it very clear how projects are selected to be worked on next.
Work with your PMO to get this in place and you’ll find prioritization becomes a lot easier.