Some companies operate in a state of constant chaos.
Employees run around trying to put out fires while managers fight for resources like they’re competing in the Hunger Games. There are always tight deadlines, and managers always need teams to push harder and go the extra mile.
If this office environment sounds stressful, it is.
If this office environment sounds like your workplace, it needs to change.
Unclear priorities can lead to resource disputes, stressed employees and unhappy customers. Keep reading to learn how project management works to create order through clear prioritization.
Unclear Priorities Confuse Employees
One of the biggest challenges that project managers and executive teams face is developing clear priorities and goals. While some organizations might think employees understand what the company expects of them, they might actually be leaving room for ambiguity.
Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez uses the example of a package delivery company to highlight the challenge of prioritizing work. Let’s say the executive team at UPS wanted to increase its delivery times and customer service. What should a driver do when a customer wants to talk about their problems for a long time? Should the driver prioritize the customer service initiative and listen, or prioritize the speed initiative and leave? While improving delivery times and service are both noble ideas, they can be conflicting when not prioritized.
Nieto-Rodriguez also points to the airline Ryanair as a clear example of setting priorities. Employees know that efficiency and saving money are the top goals of the company, taking precedence over customer service.
“When a manager believes there’s a need to shift a priority, you need to first pause, consider the timing and impact on your employees, and then consider your best options,” Dr. Bill Howatt writes. “Priority management is how a manager provides guidance to their workforce on what needs to be done when.”
Management teams constantly need to evaluate priorities and clearly communicate them with workers in order to prevent problems and slow growth.
Clear Criteria Allows Teams to Prioritize New Initiatives
Setting clear goals and priorities can also help management teams determine which new initiatives are approved. In a company running efficiently, every new project and idea will tie back to company goals, and resources will be allocated based on how much of an impact they will have.
To prioritize your initiatives, Alicia Crumpton encourages businesses to consider six factors and how your initiatives will impact them. This will help you quantify the expected effectiveness of an initiative, even if you’re just ranking them on a scale of 1 to 10. The factors are:
Strategic Value: How will the initiative help the organizational mission and values?
Financial Value: How will the company profit from this initiative?
Business Value: How will this improve business processes?
Human Value: How will work culture improve?
Social Value: How will the organization be perceived by outsiders?
Environmental Value: How will this help the overall work environment?
For example, a company that wants to invest in an employee training program could point to the human and social value of the initiatives, as better-trained employees can advance in the company. However, a training program can also help streamline business processes when more people can jump in to fill a skills gap.
If you’re lobbying for new initiatives, quantifying the results (particularly in regard to revenue or savings) can help you get approval for new projects and increase their priority levels within a company.
“Company budgets and timing are almost always limited, making it impossible to take on all project ideas conceived,” Moira Alexander writes at CIO.
Using the same employee training example from earlier, an employee could use data from similar companies that invested in internal training and how it reduced turnover (a major HR expense) and increased employee satisfaction (which leads to more productive and profitable teams). This puts a number to the project by highlighting the long-term financial benefits.
Strategic Planning Helps Lower-Level Managers Prioritize Tasks
Strategic planning isn’t just for executives setting company goals and directors approving new initiatives. Prioritization plans can also reach the smaller teams and individual people in a company.
For example, Karl Feldman at Hinge Marketing writes that every company needs to divide its initiatives into three categories:
Short-Term Opportunities: This is the low-hanging fruit that can quickly make an impact.
Mid-Term Initiatives: These need more development but can pay off relatively quickly.
Longer-Term Initiatives: These require investment and time but can pay off if companies stick to their goals.
Some companies even break apart employee days by these initiatives. A large part of the day will be dedicated to short-term opportunities, and then the other parts will focus on long-term development.
Breaking tasks into these three goals can help teams manage their talent. In an article for The Creative Group, Ed Roberts describes how he divides employees and contractors into three categories (top-tier, mid-tier and junior level). When faced with the day’s tasks, he gives the most important assignments to his top-tier team members and then distributes the other jobs to lower and junior employees.
“When [a C-suite] pop-up project hits your desk, make room on your most talented contributor’s calendar,” Roberts writes. “Have him or her do the work and knock it out of the park — and quickly. This is where facilitating daily project status meetings and having implemented a solid workflow management system will come in handy.”
This shows that your team can respond to changes and work quickly to meet management’s needs.
A Four-Step Process to Prioritize Tasks
Project goals and prioritization need to be clear at all levels of the company (from the C-suite to entry-level employees) because the needs of a company are constantly evolving and need to be communicated regularly. Project managers can work with executive teams to prioritize tasks with the help of this four-step process.
1. Develop a Priority Matrix
In an article for LiquidPlanner, Will Kelly offers advice to project managers who need to prioritize opportunities within a company. He emphasizes the differences between urgent and important tasks so PMs can balance assignments, timelines and company goals:
Urgent tasks need to get immediate attention and should be prioritized because of their business-critical nature.
Important tasks need to receive ongoing attention but are typically put on hold when an urgent task requires additional resources.
Some companies create a matrix to determine how urgent and important various tasks are. If a task is both urgent and important, then it moves to the front of the line. Important tasks that aren’t urgent are paused or pushed back.
This matrix is never static. Changing priorities from management and creeping deadlines means a project that’s not urgent today could be highly urgent next month.
Jeff Collins, president of Innovative Management Solutions, encourages PMs to always place the deadline next to a project and prioritize based on the timeframe. If your company is always focused on what is urgent and working on short-term goals, then your long-term projects will soon become urgent when deadlines creep up. This is why some companies feel like they’re constantly putting out fires instead of getting ahead of the game.
2. Quantify Your Priorities in the Production Matrix
You can also take the priority visualization process a step further by scoring your projects and assigning a score to further understand their priority levels. This might work better if your team isn’t as visual or struggles to understand the production matrix.
Emily Bonnie at Wrike suggests assigning different weights like target audience, projected hours and expected effect when assigning points to a project. For example, if a project due in a month requires 80 hours of work, then it would likely receive a higher priority score than a 10-hour project due in three weeks.
Creating scorecards to quantify project priorities is actually one of the main principles of agile management. Implementing this process can serve as a stepping stone toward making your project more agile.
“Knowing how to prioritize projects with agile marketing doesn’t mean you have to commit to the whole of agile marketing methodology,” Sam Petersen writes at The Mad Marketer. “But it does give you a taste of the kind of productivity agile facilitates. And, if you do hope to be a full agile marketing team in the future, knowing how to prioritize projects this way will give you a helpful head start.”
Consider these scorecards a test to see if the world of agile prioritization is right for your team.
3. Identify Risk Factors That Change Your Priorities
The project numbers on your scorecards are likely to change when you factor in the risk factors of missing deadlines or failing to complete the project. Steven Snell at Vandelay Design explains that the consequences for missing a task tend to vary by client and project.
For example, a company that needs to complete a project for a new client or a client that’s on the verge of leaving would assign a higher risk number to that project than missing a deadline for an internal project or a project with a more secure client.
Evaluating risk tends to be a major part of project prioritization and constantly changes with new factors like additional client demands and client-satisfaction feedback.
4. Set Micro-Goals And Reevaluate Priorities
The fourth step essentially asks project managers to repeat the first three steps on a regular basis.
The staff at LMIT encourages project managers to add mini-goals and milestones to their overarching plans. This adds flexibility to a project because PMs can see when a company is starting to derail or miss its goals. From there, the PM can take steps to make changes on a goal or project to get it back on course.
Without micro-goals, it’s impossible to know when a project is starting to fall short and it might be too late for companies to recover when they finally understand what is happening.
By following this process, your company can have a clear, documented strategy for setting priorities each week.
Prioritization Lets You Know When to Walk Away From a Project
In the same way that clear goals help prioritize tasks, they also help identify tasks that should be paused or rejected — at least in the short-term.
Small businesses and startups in particular tend to bite off more than they can chew and accept extra projects because they worry about the ramifications of turning them down. This leads to overloaded teams, employee burnout and even a decrease in product quality.
Dave Wakeman encourages project managers and business leaders in small companies to review every new initiative before taking it on by asking three questions:
Does this project fit under your strategic initiative?
Does this project fit under the company’s existing strategic framework?
Does the company have the necessary time, people and resources to make it successful?
Often, companies have strategic goals for how they want to grow, but lack the infrastructure. Small businesses need to know when to step back and put a project on hold until the strategic framework and resources are there to make it a success.
Without clear priorities, you risk burnout and frustration from employees who are asked to do more work than they can handle.
“An overly busy office can kill morale and leave employees disengaged and less capable of getting everything done,” Julie Mosow writes. “It’s on you, the manager, to help your people cut through the chaos, reduce stress, and make sure your team can accomplish its most important work.”
Prioritization helps teams focus on work and creates a clear path for success. It allows teams to have a balanced workload and informed ideas of what needs to be done.
Without Management, Teams Will Prioritize Their Own Work
In an article at Workzone, Andrew McDermott lets readers know that skipping the prioritization process is certainly an option. A project manager is more than welcome to let teams and other employees form their own priorities.
However, this means the projects will get prioritized by four types of stakeholders:
Micromanagers and overreaching executives who think they know more about team operations than you do.
Clients who want to make sure they’re your top priority at all times.
Well-meaning employees who want to improve their processes without consulting you.
People with agendas who see your lack of planning as an opportunity to take over.
Most project managers aren’t OK with these stakeholders setting their own priorities, which means implementing a clear goal-setting process is critical to running an efficient company.
Project prioritization needs to be a top-down initiative. While some departments might be more organized than others, if the company isn’t on a clear path then all team members will struggle to move it forward.