How to Prioritize when Everything’s a Priority

Prioritization frameworks have limited effectiveness when they don't account for categories and allocation

It’s inevitable: despite your best intentions, all those projects you had planned for the next quarter (or two or three) keep getting pushed back as your day-to-day is inundated with urgent tasks. Many leaders attempt to use a prioritization matrix to decide what to do, but they inevitably come up against the same three challenges:

  • All projects aren’t created equal. “Creating a new sales presentation” and “Implementing D&I initiatives across the organization” may both be important and urgent, but they require totally different resources, have different timelines, and impact different parts of the business—yet they fall in the same bucket of “to do’s”. And let’s be honest—under this schema, customer-facing, remunerative work will ALWAYS (and unfortunately) take priority over internal capability building and culture work.
  • Measuring impact is anyone’s best guess. In theory, prioritization helps you identify what projects will deliver the biggest impact, but there are so many unknowns. Will the experimental product deliver a 10x return, or will it fizzle like so many others? Is it worth stopping an existing project that might not even be accounted for in this prioritization exercise?
  • Killing projects is hard. We’ve never met a truly ruthless team—that is, one that is willing and able to abandon projects. Someone always insists that that extra project needs to be done, and it won’t really take much extra time, or they’re going to do it anyway even if the team decides it’s not a priority. Unfortunately, prioritization without accounting for allocation results in an overworked team, or no progress towards your new projects.

While there are no simple answers to the seemingly simple question, “what should we do now?”, when we facilitate prioritization and portfolio strategy sessions, we remind clients of the following:

  • First, don’t put all projects in the same bucket. Comparing that sales presentation to D&I initiatives is like comparing apples to zebras—you can’t make a fair comparison. So before you even start to prioritize, create multiple “buckets” for projects, like “Internal” and “Customer-Facing.” (Pro tip: avoid grouping by size and focus more on desired outcome.) Then sort your projects into the appropriate bucket, and prioritize within that. We’ve found that sending out a survey and having the team rank each project against criteria like reach and effort can make this process more objective.
  • Review allocation. Now that you’ve determined what you think your priorities are, it’s time to commit. What does your team need to execute on it: people? Budget? Make it actionable. If, over the course of the conversation, you realize you don’t have enough existing resources, discuss how to re-allocate from existing projects. This forces a conversation around what you’re really prioritizing—are you willing to remove a person from an existing project to work on a new initiative?
    • When estimating allocation, remember that new priorities often require new habits to realize. It could be as simple as changing the structure of your meetings, but it could also require new teams to form, new habits, and shared rituals—so reshape your time accordingly.
  • Be willing to let go. With limited resources, you’re going to have to make difficult choices—but you need to make sure you’re sticking to those choices. Discuss, as a group, what projects to kill or scale back, and ask, “what would it feel like, within the organization, if we didn’t do “X” anymore?” It may also be helpful to reflect, as individuals and as a team, what you’re hoping to accomplish with a prioritization activity in the first place—do you really want to prioritize, or do you just want approval for what you’ve already decided to do?

We recommend reviewing prioritization at least on a quarterly basis—with markets changing so quickly, your team must be able to adapt.

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How to Prioritize when Everything’s a Priority
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