Previous articles I have written on the topic of portfolio prioritization provided some tips on moving from subjective methods (e.g. lobbying, gut feel) to objective, consistent practices. However, even when applying these approaches, it may not always be possible to get a 1 – n ranking of your projects. This is not a problem assuming you have sufficient staff to be able to work on all of the top projects concurrently, but that is a luxury few organizations enjoy. Instead, you are likely facing a situation where you have multiple shared team members that are working on multiple non-discretionary projects.
In this case, you may have project managers competing with one another to see who gets which team member first, and resource managers getting caught in the no-win scenario of trying to keep everyone happy while honoring the priorities defined by senior management. This itself is bad enough, but if the resource managers themselves are telling their staff that are stretched that all the projects are all equally important, they have now pushed the decision making about where to focus down to the individual resource which usually results in the realization of the saying “if all your projects are number one projects, then none of your projects are number one”.
So what can you do?
1. Re-evaluate the active portfolio to ensure that every project that is hitting the shared staff pool is a must-do project that must be active right now. Depending on the size of your portfolio, you might identify some lampreys that could be temporarily (or permanently) parked.
2. Effectively communicate how critical each of the projects is to project and resource managers and to the staff. Provide as much transparency as possible regarding the rationale for each project, the timing for the milestones that must be met, and also the impact if one of these projects were to fail or the milestones were not achieved. If you have a current, objective strategic plan against which you can demonstrate project alignment, so much the better. But don’t fail to make it clear and understandable to front-line staff why these projects are of importance to your company and to them.
3. Review the timing for the milestones across each of the must-do projects to identify points of contention (aka “Perfect Storms”) – if you can re-plan or negotiate changes to key milestone dates to eliminate such situations, you will help staff that might find themselves in a crunch trying to hit two critical milestones at the same time.
4. Resource and project managers can collaborate to provide staff with personalized cross-project milestone lists to help team members understand the relative importance of activities at any given time. For example, knowing that two projects that I am contributing to are both number one doesn’t help me prioritize my daily activities, but if I know that I’ve got a milestone for one that is due next week, and another one for the second project that is due the week after, that does provide me with some guidance. This strategy has to be carefully implemented to avoid “just in time” mentality for team members and even resource managers where they focus purely on near term milestones and ignore the foundation work required to meet future ones. Taken to the extreme, this myopia can result in a vicious cycle with each milestone becoming a mad dash.
5. Project managers should make sure that team members understand how the work they are doing helps to achieve a significant milestone and work effectively with resource managers to resolve performance issues such as procrastination or Parkinson’s Law. The right mental model for the shared staff is that of a relay race runner – their objective should be to complete the work they are doing in a timely, quality fashion so that it can be cleanly handed off to the next person in the race.
If I were to channel George Orwell, I might state: All projects are equally important, but some projects are more important than others (at a given time)!