How do you prioritise your projects?

Colin Ellis recommends using Stephen R. Covey’s ‘First Things First’ model.

By Colin Ellis
Dec. 12, 2016

I remember my favourite project portfolio prioritisation session vividly. I asked each executive director to provide a one-page summary and 30-second speech for each initiative that they wanted to undertake the following financial year. Then they took turns to stand up and present these to their peers.

I gave them a sheet that enabled them to grade each key element of the project being presented and at the end (before we left the room) I collated the scores and produced a list of the 1-82 projects. Their goal was to then agree the top ten, top 25 and top 50.

We proved the previous year that we could resource and complete 55 projects but the record of meeting stakeholder expectations was poor, so I set the number at 50.

The whole process took three and a half hours. There were laughs, verbal jousting, howls of derision, structured discussion and some (well behaved) arguments. We confidently published the top 50 and set about delivering them the next year.

Halfway through the year, we re-evaluated what had been completed and talked about what was left to do. I ran the workshop again and we halved the number of projects.

That year we delivered 57 projects and met the expectations of the stakeholders on 75 per cent of them. Crucially, people believed in what was being done and had the confidence from day one that we could achieve everything that we planned to do.

If you don't run a similar process, there are several dangers:

  1. You don't have a shared view of what's important and what's not
  2. The portfolio may contain numerous 'pet' projects that have little ROI
  3. You plan to do too much
  4. You end up doing the wrong projects in the wrong order
  5. You over promise on the benefits of your projects

What I see all too often is a willingness to deliver in the right way, but an over-reliance on a complex spreadsheet full of weightings during strategic planning to tell you what the most important things are.

Once we get into the financial year, there's no consensus on what needs to be done and when and we have 'over egged' the benefits to the point where there's no belief that we can achieve what we promised. Money and time is wasted and staff morale and culture suffers.

Like most things in the project management world, it's completely avoidable.

When it comes to prioritisation, I've always believed in Stephen R. Covey's 'First Things First' model. If you're not familiar with it, here it is:

When it comes to prioritising your projects, or putting the plan together for next year, here's how to use Dr Covey's model.

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