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The symptoms of poor prioritisation

Prioritisation is crucial for effective project management in organisations. It is prioritisation that gains access to those resources required to get the project done. Without prioritisation there can be a continuous fight for resources and projects drag on and on.

That is not to deny that some project managers are brilliant at getting projects done without priorities, using a range of relationship and influencing skills. Whilst this can lead to an individually successful project, it is questionable whether this is in the interests of the organisation. Without explicit priorities you do not know whether the project is really important enough in the wider scheme of things going on in the organisation.

The problem is that whilst we need clear priorities, project managers usually have no control over prioritisation. Priority decisions are made by other, often more senior managers – or more to the point, not made! A project manager may feel hopeless in this situation. But there are things you can do. You can lobby for clear prioritisation, and you can explain the impact of a lack of prioritisation to your managers. For this to be effective you first have to recognise the symptoms of it. 

In this article I want to explore the symptoms of poor prioritisation. If this proves to be a topic of interest, in future articles I will look at what you can do about it.

Everyone needs to prioritise

An essential task for senior managers or executives in every organisation is selecting and prioritising the optimal projects to undertake at a point in time. This decision has to take account of contending business needs, for example balancing fixing short term operational problems with achieving the longer term vision. In prioritising, you are seeking to allocate your limited resources to the most important needs of the organisation. 

All organisations need to prioritise.

Even resource rich organisations have more activities that could be undertaken than there are resources to do. Ironically, prioritisation is often hardest in the most resource rich environments. In such environments, the demanding process of deciding where to allocate resources and what not to do is often ducked due to a misplaced sense of having sufficient resources to do everything.

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to prioritise. It takes concerted effort and a thorough understanding of options and resource constraints. Although prioritisation requires analysis, it is above all an exercise in decision making – and many people find making choices between contending options difficult.

The precise role of senior managers depends on the culture of the organisation, and the degree to which power and decision making is delegated and decentralised. However, even in an organisation which minimises hierarchy and delegates power to a significant extent, some decisions around prioritisation must be made centrally, by executives. 

How can you tell whether prioritisation is happening in an organisation? Here are 6 scenarios that I often find which will tell you that prioritisation is not happening, or more commonly, not happening effectively.

1. There is no prioritisation

Senior teams often struggle with prioritisation. I have worked in a few organisations in which there is not even an attempt to prioritise. Perhaps managers do not understand the need, or maybe they think it is not required in their environment. The argument “we don’t need to prioritise” is fortunately relatively rare, but not unheard of! Whether prioritisation is formalised or not is a different question – but I reiterate, all organisations need to prioritise. 

2. No one knows what the priorities are

It is essential to thoroughly communicate project priorities. Priorities are crucial pieces of information to communicate across the organisation. There is simply no point going through the effort of prioritising unless everyone is told what the resultant decisions are.

Staff cannot work to priorities unless they are clear what they are. As part of the communication of priorities it is important to stress not only what the high priority initiatives are, but also that other low priority initiatives should not be worked on.

3. No-one knows what projects are ongoing

This is an indirect indication of whether prioritisation is happening or not. To prioritise we must have an understanding of what the possible and actual projects are. Therefore if this picture does not exist, even as a very high level picture, it is unlikely that any prioritisation is taking place. 

4. Everything is high priority 

Another typical situation is when senior teams think they are prioritising, but for all activities to be defined as high priority. This is more difficult to resolve, as undoubtedly a prioritisation process is being undertaken – it is just not effective. If prioritisation is not effective, it is not worth the effort.

The classic example is when a management team decides to prioritise the project portfolio. Projects are prioritised on a scale of 1 to 3. At the end of the prioritisation 90% of the projects are given priority 1. A tiny number of obviously unimportant projects are given priority 3 and stopped. 

Managers then feel pleased they have prioritised. They tell everyone to focus on the priority 1 projects, often adding that everyone should try and fit in the priority 2 projects as well.

This is not prioritisation, it is weak thinking and failure to make decisions. If the result of prioritisation is for all activities to have a high priority, then no prioritisation is really being done. 

Effective prioritisation should result in clear decisions not to undertake some activities, and in a relatively small selection of high priority initiatives to progress. Large numbers of initiatives being run in parallel may appear essential, but it is always inefficient. It is far better to focus on a few things, complete them and then move onto the next set of projects than to try and do everything at once. 

5. Local and personal priorities rule

An absence of real prioritisation decisions by senior managers does not lead to a total lack of prioritisation in the organisation. In the end, staff have only so many hours in the day and if no prioritisation is undertaken, they will prioritise themselves. They have little choice but to do this. 

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with delegating prioritisation decisions, but it suffers from two problems. The first is that prioritisation decisions are taken across an organisation and will be inconsistent. The second problem follows on from this. Project progress will be delayed and resource inefficiently allocated. This happens because of the lack of synchronisation between different individuals and teams.

6. Conformance to priorities is poor

There is often surprisingly high resistance to working to priorities set centrally. The final sign of poor prioritisation is that no-one conforms to them. Let me give you a scenario. 

Managers have expended significant effort on prioritisation. There is a clear ranking of priorities that are widely communicated – perhaps visible on some central intranet site. The problem is that everyone ignores them.

Project managers often contribute to this problem. If you are working on a very low priority project, your role is not to get the project completed in spite of the prioritisation, but to deliver it taking account of the prioritisation. This unfortunately means it will probably take a long time. Developing and committing to a project plan without understanding the priority of your project is foolhardy.

This tendency can result in radical and sometimes unpleasant actions. One organisation I was involved in had serious financial difficulties. The executive prioritised projects lowly to slow down capital expenditure. Project managers successfully bypassed the priorities set centrally and got project delivered even though the executive wanted to slow down all projects. In the end the executive, exasperated, took a radical decision. Most of the project managers were fired. This is of course an extreme example – but it is true and if you continuously ignore the priorities set you are effectively working against corporate decisions.

FT Briefing: Change Management, which was published in 2010. Similar themes have also appeared in other things I have written. Most project managers understand the principles of prioritisation and why it is important – but its practical application is a common problem. 

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