Ruthless Prioritization in Project Environments

by Shawn D. Belling, M.S, PMP, ACP, CSP, Adjunct Faculty, Wisconsin School of Business Center for Professional and Executive Development
October 31, 2017

In resource-constrained project environments where everything is a priority, nothing can truly be a priority. A key responsibility of senior leadership is to provide ruthless prioritization and leave no doubt as to the organization's top projects.

My experience in project environments reinforces my belief that contemporary organizations can execute projects consistently. When addressing a troubled project environment, a significant impediment may emerge - lack of direction from senior leaders on priorities. This holds up project planning and execution, regardless of the technology or methodology.

Shawn D. Belling, M.S, PMP, ACP, CSP, Adjunct Faculty, Wisconsin School of Business Center for Professional and Executive Development

In this article, I discuss some scenarios which are solved by regular and ruthless prioritization and offer a harsh view of senior leaders not willing or able to own prioritization. I close by offering some definitions of “ruthless prioritization.”

Let’s take a look at four scenarios:

The Compromise - The compromise scenario is a defensive play driven by risk aversion. Fear of slowing some important projects in favor of others that are also considered important pushes leaders to a poor compromise. No one makes tough decisions, no projects are paused or deprived of resources, and all projects continue. But to enable this, resources are diluted and spread thinly across these projects, reducing progress to a crawl.

By prioritizing too many things, the organization makes minimal progress on several projects but makes no value-creating progress on any. Failure to prioritize value-creating projects surrenders the organization’s competitive advantage.

Trying to Do It All – This evil twin variant to the compromise approach asks that teams and resources work 80-hour weeks to make measurable progress on multiple “priority” projects. Sometimes it is necessary - examples include the rapid growth phases of start-ups, and rare "bet the company" scenarios which warrant this approach for a short, intense time. One example is Intel during the early 80's and the "125 percent solution." Intel made an enormous bet and demanded employees work a minimum of two extra hours per day on top of normal sixty hour weeks. This strategic and temporary plan took a toll, but it worked.

This solution is often a consequence of senior leaders' failure to prioritize a few vital projects, combined with a willingness to place the burden for their failure on their teams and resources. Short term, this can yield some results. Over the mid-term, any realized acceleration of value delivery will be unsustainable. Long-term, this tactic burns out teams, creates toxic workplaces, and results in expensive turnover.

Analysis Paralysis - Slightly less destructive to employees is the analysis paralysis scenario which emerges when senior leaders feel a low sense of urgency to prioritize and direct project teams and resources accordingly. Instead, their endless deliberations and requests for "what-ifs" burn cycles from key resources (with zero value creation), create a false impression of progress and “careful consideration” while concealing indecisiveness.

The organization afflicted with analysis paralysis can’t advance their major projects. Team morale suffers as they handle maintenance and low-value work while developing scenario after scenario to be considered by senior leaders at their next project review meeting. When a final decision is made, too much time has been wasted that could have been saved by decisive leadership through ruthless prioritization.

All Projects Are High Priority - This worst of all scenario finds senior leaders telling subordinates to treat everything like a top priority. Leaders engaging in this behavior are, at best, ready for reassignment to less demanding duties - they’ve lost the right to lead. At worst, they’re impeding their organizations' performance and violating their fiduciary duties.

Prioritization decisions are not easy decisions. As a senior leader, you put your reputation, credibility, and sometimes your career on the line. That is why you are well-compensated. The expectation is that you know your business, your strategy, and your teams, therefore you can make tough calls. That's also why it’s unacceptable to hold this role and then kick the can to your subordinates. It's insulting to pass tough priority decisions and consequences to subordinates when you are paid to prioritize.

What is the solution?

The antidote to these project prioritization scenarios is a ruthless prioritization process. It seems obvious - yet, some organizations lack this, or cannot pull it together and execute it at critical times.

Much like security or disaster planning, ruthless prioritization can't be reactive or situational. It must be injected into the company’s DNA, and become as routine and natural as coming to work. Making difficult but critical project priority decisions on a regular cadence becomes easier to sustain over time.

In organizations where this becomes the norm, any pause or deviation from this cadence becomes impactful for its absence. The organization comes to rely on the process, even take it for granted. This is a good thing - it means everyone at all levels is bought in, the rhythm is there, and it's a natural business process.

The challenge is getting this in place. Like all evolution or change, it takes realization of the problem and its importance to the organization to fix it. Once an organization follows through on the commitment to put a ruthless prioritization process in place, they must stick to it.

What does ruthless prioritization really mean?

It means having a vital few projects with senior leaders being accountable for ranking them and acting accordingly. It means senior leaders are willing to make (and have the data and process to support) decisions such as:

  • Pulling resources off an important project (and dealing with customer or sponsor fallout) to execute on a more important project.
  • Delaying or canceling “nice to have” projects that might please some internal or external stakeholders, but provide little or no value creation or competitive advantage.
  • Stopping all other projects to take advantage of a narrow window of opportunity, and accept that your near-complete product release might slip.
  • Holding off an angry customer for one more sprint to ship your near-complete product release (or the exact opposite - delay the release to fix the angry customer situation).
  • Scrutinizing your project and product portfolio every two to four weeks without fail, and revisiting decisions if conditions warrant.

Does your organization know how to be ruthless when it comes to prioritization?

Shawn Belling teaches Agile Project Management Techniques for Iterative Development for the Wisconsin School of Business Center for Professional and Executive Development. Contact [email protected] for more information on upcoming course dates.