Juggling School for Project Managers

Jan 24, 2019

If you work in a project-based environment, you probably feel like one of those juggling clowns at the circus: trying to keep your ball, your baton, and your flaming torch in the air at the same time, all while maneuvering your unicycle around the ring. Focus too much on one object and you risk dropping one of the others—or even taking a tumble. Project management can be a lot like this. But if you fail to give one project the attention or funding it needs, the consequences can be much more serious than a dropped ball, especially when your higher-ups find out money has been wasted on an unimportant or failed project.

A dearth of facts and unbiased analysis lead executives to make poor decisions when selecting new projects or assigning resources to existing ones. The result? Unmet business goals and lost opportunities. Bad project management decisions not only cause the misuse of valuable funds, they create an environment where strategic projects take a backseat while certain “pet” projects are given higher priority.

Great news: organizations don't have to manage their projects in such a circuslike manner. The solution is project prioritization and selection. By using this methodology, you can organize and manage projects as a group or as a portfolio at a business or departmental level.

Project prioritization and selection requires involvement at all levels of the organization, including executives, the project management office, project managers, and other stakeholders. The information is collected, shared, and presented for analysis in a systematic and easy-to-use manner.

Project prioritization and selection involves a five-step process:

  1. Select project ranking criteria. For example, in this step you'll consider whether a project aimed at cost reduction or one aimed at staff retention is more important at a given moment.
  2. Rank the projects. The top 20% of projects will deliver 80% of the value to a business. This step helps you figure out what that top 20% is. You'll use your criteria to weight your projects and then rank them accordingly.
  3. Balance your portfolio. This provides you with the right mix of projects and helps increase the priority of those projects that offer high reward for low risk.
  4. Balance capacity/resources. This step helps ensure that there is adequate resource availability and assesses the organization's capacity to deliver a given project.
  5. Prioritize your overall portfolio. Designate lower-ranked projects or those that cannot be funded immediately as “inactive.”

Advantages of project prioritization:

  • It organizes your company's best interests. Much like your  MP3 playlist allows you to put your favorite (think, "most valuable" in business speak) songs in an easily-accessible list, the project portfolio organizes projects that share a combination of common objectives, cost centers, resources, risks, or other associations, and allows management to make funding decisions, and to report on and analyze a collection of projects in one entity. You can simply look at your portfolio and decide which projects are strategic, which require additional funding, and which ones are not reaching the expected end results. It consolidates your project information so that people across departments know what projects are the most important and so are most worthy of their time and resources.
  • It takes the guesswork out of project management. Sometimes, managers might want to see certain projects take priority simply because the results will benefit their department or act as an easy win. Or well-intentioned managers may mistakenly assign more resources to a project that seems important but actually isn’t. Implementing project prioritization and selection processes elevates decision making to a more strategic viewpoint by aligning and assigning projects with business priorities. Managers can decide which projects are the most important based on hard information. It ensures that people are working toward the goals that will create the most valuable results for the organization.
  • It provides guidance for new projects. Project prioritization and selection helps you add new projects to your queue without misallocating more important resources to them. At the same time, it helps you allocate enough time and manpower to ensure quality results. It's a balancing act. Project prioritization and selection provides a framework to evaluate new project requests or opportunities in a systematic matter. Each opportunity is considered against the current priorities and resource availability. If it's determined that the new project isn't a priority, it can be rejected or archived for future consideration.
  • Risks are assessed from a global perspective. With project prioritization and selection, new risks can be assessed more thoroughly and with respect to how they will affect the company as a whole. The steps you'll use to organize your project portfolio will help you weed out those projects that contain too much risk to pursue. Naturally, if projects are prioritized and selected properly, risk is greatly reduced and the business operates at an optimal capacity with a higher number of successful projects.
  • It helps you know when you have the resources and when you don't. In project planning, resource availability is key. Resources are allocated to high-priority projects, and this process is repeated until the resources are exhausted. Once all resources are allocated or reassigned, the remaining projects are put on hold or additional resources are added to the pool. Your project portfolio will help you see if you are over-allocated or close to capacity and in which months resources will be available for projects. Your ranking system will help you see when resources need to be reallocated, and everyone will understand the reasons behind the decision because the weighting and ranking is there for everyone to see.
  • It is less time-consuming than juggling projects. When you hear about project prioritization and selection, you may lament, “Oh, great! Something else to take up my time.” In reality, once you have the system in place, you'll spend less time trying to figure out what happened to all of those failed projects or spent resources and more time actually managing the projects that matter most. The management of your project portfolio, once set up, is an ongoing exercise performed with the help of project managers and, in some cases, project sponsors, and executives. The system doesn’t take much maintenance; a minor review each month and a major portfolio review once every quarter are all that is required.
  • It makes people more accountable. The project prioritization and selection system fosters accountability. Resources are allocated based on specific criteria, so if a project doesn't receive the funding or manpower it needs to be successful or if it fails for some other reason, leaders will know what went wrong where and will be able to address those issues with the appropriate employees. As a result, managers can analyze past decisions with respect to project prioritization and selection and use this knowledge to improve their decision making and forecasting abilities. One caveat: you should establish a framework for continued process improvement so that lessons learned and metrics obtained may be used to improve future project selection, estimation, and ranking decisions.

Project prioritization and selection is just one more step in providing your employees with what will be the backbone of their success in project execution—timely and accurate information. This critical ingredient allows them to make fact-based decisions regarding project priorities and new project selection that align projects and resource utilization with the company's goals. Ultimately, having the right information at the right time will improve your company's odds of creating tremendous value—which, of course, is the reason for the juggling act in the first place.