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Why Do Projects Succeed or Fail? Priority Control

project management

Mark Woeppel - December 10, 2014

My last post concerned the second principle of the Basic Collaboration Level of the Project Execution Maturity Model, Functional Alignment. This post introduces the third principle, Priority Control.

Managing priorities is one of your most powerful weapons to eliminate multitasking. But even with “formal” priorities, there’s often significant disagreement amongst team members about what is the most important task to accomplish now. A Priority Control process boosts velocity by addressing the primary cause of multitasking and killing unnecessary, additional, unplanned, costly work.

We’ve all seen teams that, all too often, have obscure priorities. Even worse are the teams that have to live with multiple priority systems—one from the project management system, one from the Enterprise Requirements Planning system, one from the manager, and yet another from colleagues. It’s no wonder their project meetings suck—no one can agree on when something is needed, and priorities are determined by intuition and edict.

The result, of course, is constant expediting, more firefighting, and more finger pointing. No one can get it right because there is no “right.” Mistakes in task sequence are made, and commitments are missed. A transparent priority control system maintains consistency of project and task priorities. It aligns local priorities with goals and commitments that unite the efforts of the entire project team—everyone has an objective understanding of what is the most important thing to do now.

By keeping a consistent priority scheme, the problems created by working tasks out of sequence are nearly eliminated, reducing the cascading project delays. Task switching created by multiple priority signals is eliminated, increasing productivity and speed, and reducing project lead times.

The priority system need not be complicated; it must only be transparent. If it’s not, work gets done out of sequence, causing delays and lost productivity.

As an example of a simple process, we recently worked with a software development team in the United States. They created a simple prioritization number (PN) that ranked tasks, using category, severity, and business impact to determine priority. With the PN on hand, the team established task queues in sequence, making the priorities and the thought behind them clear to everyone. The PN was part of the solution that accelerated progress tremendously. Without priority confusion, the rate of feature completion increased almost tenfold—with the added benefit of pleasing the client when they received their release sooner than expected.

The priority control process can be as simple as this example, or it can take multiple steps and approvals. The mechanism for establishing priority and the relative importance of tasks and deliverables must be transparent and deliver a consistent message of the order of work throughout the process.

In order to establish your priority control process, ask yourself the following questions: What’s the criteria for determining priorities (the final delivery date? A milestone date? The most important customer? The biggest boss?) and who controls them?

We should not ignore reality and its impact on our work priorities; rather, we should recognize the fact that surprises do happen, and we’ve got to have a mechanism in place to maintain clear priority signals without breaking the project. The priority system is a way to create unity within both the project and the organization.

Effective priority control can be seen in organizations where:
• There is only one prioritization system that reflects the global focus, and it is used for all projects and supporting tasks.
• Project and task priorities are reconciled regularly among the affected stakeholders.
• Resources are applied to the right tasks at the right times.
• There’s a clear escalation process in place to resolve priority conflicts when they do occur.
• There is someone accountable to manage project and task priorities.

In the next few blog posts, I continue to identify the elements that drive effective project execution excellence, giving you a measurable means to assess your status, to target areas of improvement, and to make meaningful progress in the way you deliver projects. Get a preview and learn more by reading my free eBook “Why Do Projects Succeed or Fail? Discover What Really Makes a Difference.”

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