A 3-Step Framework for Establishing Project Priorities from the Start

Nov 02, 2021


In today’s competitive and fast-changing business world, organizations are taking on an increasing number of projects. With the growing prevalence of hybrid teams and contract professionals, the ability to manage projects seamlessly and effectively is more critical than ever to meeting business goals and delivering results. When tasked with managing a new project, it’s vital to know that project’s priorities early on—ideally, from day one. With clear priorities in place, the whole team can hit the ground running to get the project started right and stay on track until its successful completion.

For inexperienced and “accidental” project managers—professionals called to balance managing projects with their primary job responsibilities—as well as those more seasoned yet facing pressure to manage projects with tighter constraints and higher expectations, determining a project’s priorities can be challenging. In its hands-on and comprehensive project management workshops, American Management Association (AMA) offers a variety of valuable techniques and practical tools to help. Among AMA’s trusted guidance for setting project priorities is a three-step framework that can be summed up in this tip: Think of every project as a triangle.

Why a triangle? Simply put, every project has three core components or sides: scope, time, and cost. With your project’s triangle in mind, you can begin to establish priorities for your team by asking three questions:

First question: Which side of the project triangle is the most important—scope, time, or cost—and therefore the least flexible? For example, if the job owner emphatically stated a fixed budget with a firm number—such as, “$65,000 or under in total, with no room for overruns”—then cost is the project’s first priority. Once you’ve established cost as the top priority, you can stress to your team members that it’s imperative to keep a vigilant eye on expenditures and avoid costly errors before they dive into the project.

Second question: Which side of the project triangle is the second most important? With the first priority in place, project managers can move on to identifying what side takes precedence next. For instance, if the job owner emphasized the project’s scope—what the project aims to achieve, whether building a new website or overhauling a manufacturing process, and all the tasks, skills, and resources needed to make that happen—then you can direct your team members to focus on the project’s scope within the parameters of the project’s cost.

Third question: Which side of the project triangle is the third most important? While the answer to this question might seem obvious, project managers need to give it serious consideration to confirm the project’s order of priorities. For example, if the job owner presents a deadline for the project such as, “within three to five months,” then the timeframe has considerable flexibility. With time established as the project’s third priority, you can convey to your team that getting the project done by a specific deadline isn’t as much of a concern as getting it done right and, above all, on budget.

After asking all three questions, project managers are strongly advised to record their answers in a Priority Matrix, a useful tool widely available as software that works on both desktop and mobile and integrates into Outlook and Microsoft Teams. This matrix should have a horizontal axis for the first, second, and third priorities, as well as notes on flexibility—including details on what the job owner stated, such as, “total fixed cost: $65,000; no overruns”—plus a vertical axis that lists scope, time, and cost.

Whether related to product innovations or process improvements, projects are crucial to keeping a company ahead of its competitors and thriving. For project managers across the board, knowing your project’s priorities from the start helps you make the right trade-off decisions later. And it gives you a better chance of delivering an on-track, on-budget, successful project that is a source of pride for your entire team.

About AMA

American Management Association (AMA) is globally recognized as a leader in professional development. For nearly 100 years, it has helped millions of people bring about positive change in their performance in order to improve results. AMA’s learn-by-doing instructor-led methods, extensive content, and flexible learning formats are proven effective—and constantly evolve to meet the changing needs of individuals and organizations. To learn more, visit www.amanet.org.