Long-time readers of this blog will know that I support the concept and principles of objective project prioritization. However I am pragmatic and recognize that a significant percentage of the organizations who aspire to having objective rankings of their active and pipeline projects can’t get there overnight, and even as their practices mature, they still must successfully deliver multiple parallel projects with constrained skills and capacity.
If this sounds like your organization, what can be done to meet commitments while not ignoring the practice improvements required to achieve a more manageable active project portfolio?
- Make sure must-do projects are REALLY must-do – As with any negotiation, the starting point for a project customer will be the one that is in their best interest, namely that their project is the most important one in the portfolio. However, the discussion around priority should always ask the questions “What’s likely to happen if we don’t do this project?” and “What’s the impact if we don’t do this project right now?” to get a more objective understanding of a project’s criticality.
- Understand constraint flexibility (no, that is NOT an oxymoron) – Similar to the previous point, the initial response to “What will happen if we pushed the project back by a month or two?” or “What would happen if we added some external resources to the critical path?” might be negative, but you’ll need to dig deeper to ensure that the portrayed constraints are in fact immovable. The reality is that not all project’s constraints will be fixed – you can either be proactive and have those conversations up front, or back into them when issues arise!
- Don’t overplan – With more concurrent work underway than can be easily delivered, issues are going to emerge and plans must be flexible and scalable to adapt to these challenges.
- Prioritize milestones – Once a small set of must-do concurrent projects has been identified and preliminary planning has been completed, the focus of prioritization should shift to the truly critical milestones within these projects. Near term milestones should be given a higher priority as there is less flexibility or time to resolve issues related to those than with longer term ones. This does not mean ignoring longer term milestones – the confidence level of meeting those should still be reported regularly to leadership teams, but decision making regarding scarce skills should favor near term critical milestones.
- Establish consistent cross-project resource contention issue management at the portfolio level – Significant effort and time can be wasted in dealing with resource contention issues between projects so effort spent up front in defining processes and governance for resolving such contention will pay for itself within the first few milestones.
- Communicate the reality of the situation to all staff – Although the leadership team may understand the rationale for having multiple parallel #1 projects, if they don’t do a good job of cascading this information down through their direct reports to all staff, morale and productivity will suffer.
Juggling multiple balls might seem like an impossible feat to an untrained novice but just as jugglers develop techniques and practices to do this, it is possible for organizations to improve their ability to manage multiple concurrent must-do projects. However, even expert jugglers eventually tire, and if the volume of concurrent work doesn’t subside to more manageable levels in time, inevitably one or more critical project “balls” will drop along with a side order of skilled staff attrition.