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Juggling for Project Managers

Seven reasons to overhaul your project management system

Published: Monday, January 14, 2008 - 23:00

If you work in a project-based environment, you may feel like one of those juggling clowns at the circus, trying to keep your ball, your baton, and your flaming torch in the air at the same time, all while maneuvering your unicycle around the ring. Focus too much on one object and you risk dropping one of the others, or even taking a tumble. Project management is a lot like this. Neglect to give one project the attention or funding it needs and the consequences of doing so can be much more serious than a dropped ball, especially when your higher-ups find out money has been wasted on an unimportant or failed project.

Organizations don’t have to manage their projects in such a circus-like manner. In fact, project prioritization and selection can help you save time and money and achieve consistent success for your company.

A dearth of facts and unbiased analysis lead executives to make poor decisions when selecting new projects or assigning resources to existing ones. The result? Unmet business goals and lost opportunities. Bad project management decisions not only cause the misuse of valuable funds, they create an environment where strategic projects take a backseat while pet projects are given higher priority.

Under a poorly managed project system, managers have no way to know what percentage of their projects are high-risk, resulting in money spent simply to keep things going rather than completing value-creating projects. Successful executives have to make the right decisions not only at the project level but also at the business level, where there can be hundreds of projects to evaluate at any given time. It’s a tall order, especially when you consider that all of these projects rely on the same enterprise resource pool and obtain funding from the same global budget.

Project prioritization and selection—part of project workforce management—is the clear solution. With this methodology, you can organize and manage projects as a group, or a portfolio at a business or departmental level. Project prioritization and selection requires involvement at all levels of the organization, including executives, the project management office, project managers, and other stakeholders. The information is collected, shared, and presented for analysis in a systematic and easy-to-use manner.

Project prioritization and selection involves a five-step process:

Step 1 involves selecting project-ranking criteria. For example, in this step you’ll consider whether a project aimed at cost reduction or one aimed at staff retention is more important at a given moment.

Step 2 allows you to rank the projects. The top 20 percent of projects will deliver 80 percent of the value to a business. This step helps you figure out what projects fall into that top 20 percent. You’ll use your criteria to weight your projects and then rank them accordingly.

Step 3 balances your portfolio, providing you with the right mix of projects. This helps to increase the priority of those projects that offer high reward for low risk.

Step 4 balances capacity/resources, helps you ensure that there is adequate resource availability, and assesses the organization’s capacity to deliver a given project.

Step 5 helps you prioritize your overall portfolio by marking lower-ranked projects or those that cannot be funded immediately as inactive.

Your efforts to prioritize and carefully select your projects will pay off tremendously. Here are a few advantages to implementing this system at your organization:

It allows you to organize your company’s best interests.
Think of it as a Google calendar or an iTunes playlist for your projects. The project portfolio that you create when you prioritize your projects helps you put the projects that are the most valuable to your organization right there in one place. Much like a software calendar organizes your meetings or your playlist allows you to put your favorite (think “most valuable” in business speak) songs in an easily-accessible list, the project portfolio organizes projects that share a combination of common objectives, cost centers, resources, risks, or other associations, and allows management to make funding decisions, and to report on and analyze a collection of projects in one entity. You can simply look at your portfolio and decide which projects are strategic, which require additional funding, and which ones are not reaching the expected end results. It consolidates your project information so that, no matter what department employees or managers might be working in, they know what projects are the most important and can devote their time and resources accordingly.

It takes the guesswork out of project management.
Sometimes, managers might want to see certain projects take priority simply because the results will benefit their department or act as an easy win. Other times, well-intentioned managers may mistakenly assign more resources to what seems like an important project, when in reality another project should get the attention. Implementing project prioritization and selection processes elevates decision making to a more strategic viewpoint by aligning and assigning projects with business priorities. It also helps optimize resource allocation. Managers can decide which projects are the most important based on hard information. They no longer have to guess at what project deserves the most money and attention. It ensures that your company is always working toward the goals that will create the most valuable results for the organization.

It provides guidance for new projects.
In a perfect world, only new projects that create value for the business and its customers would be implemented at an organization. Unfortunately, we live in an imperfect world. Once they’re up and running, new projects aren’t always given the attention needed to be successful. Conversely, they are given too much attention and their success isn’t helpful for the company. Project prioritization and selection helps you add new projects to your queue without misallocating more important resources to them. At the same time, it helps you allocate enough time and manpower to ensure quality results. It’s a balancing act. Project prioritization and selection provides a framework to evaluate new project requests or opportunities in a systematic matter. Each opportunity is considered against the current priorities and resource availability. If the new project isn’t a priority, it can be rejected or archived for future consideration.

Risks are assessed from a global perspective on their overall effect.
Ask your managers—it’s likely that avoiding unnecessary risks is at the top of their concerns. But if they’re focused only on avoiding risks with respect to the projects already in the pipeline, then their risk assessments won’t do the company much good. With project prioritization and selection, new risks can be assessed more thoroughly and with respect to how they will affect the company as a whole. The steps you’ll use to organize your project portfolio, specifically in Step 3 when you balance your portfolio, will help you weed out those projects that contain too much risk to pursue. Naturally, if projects are prioritized and selected properly, risk is greatly reduced and the business operates at an optimal capacity with a higher number of successful projects.

It helps you know when you have the resources and when you don’t.
In project planning, resource availability is key. It’s also equally important to understand the organization’s capacity to deliver and its ability to develop internal capabilities. Resources are allocated to high-priority projects, and this process is repeated until the resources are exhausted. Once all resources are allocated or reassigned, the remaining projects are put on hold or additional resources are added to the pool. Your project portfolio will help you see if you are over-allocated or close to capacity, and in which months resources will be available for projects. Simply put, the system allows you to balance your resources. Your ranking system will help you see when resources need to be reallocated, and everyone will understand the reasons behind the decision because the weighting and ranking is there for everyone to see.

It’s less time-consuming than juggling projects.
When you hear about project prioritization and selection, you may think “Oh, great! Something else to take up my time.” The reality is that once you have the system in place, you’ll spend less time trying to figure out what happened to all of those failed projects or spent resources and more time actually managing the projects that matter most. The management of your project portfolio, once set up, is an ongoing exercise performed with the help of project managers and, in some cases, project sponsors and executives. The great thing about this system is that it doesn’t need to be constantly poked and prodded. In fact, it is important not to upset the portfolio too frequently by constant prioritization and resource balancing. We recommend you have a minor review each month and a major portfolio review once every quarter.

It makes people more accountable.
Without a clear report of how and why projects are approved or rejected, no one can be held accountable when a project fails or is not funded when it should have been. The project prioritization and selection system fosters accountability. Resources are allocated based on specific criteria, so if a project doesn’t receive the funding or manpower it needs to be successful or if it fails for some other reason, leaders will know what went wrong where and can address those issues with the appropriate employees. As a result, managers can analyze past decisions with respect to project prioritization and selection and use this knowledge to improve their decision-making and forecasting abilities. But remember: you should establish a framework for continued process improvement so that lessons learned and metrics obtained may be used to improve future project selection, estimation, and ranking decisions.

Project prioritization and selection is just one step in providing your employees with what will be the backbone of their success in project execution—timely and accurate information. This critical ingredient allows them to make fact-based decisions regarding project priorities and new project selection that align projects and resource utilization with the company’s goals. Ultimately, having the right information at the right time will improve your company’s odds of creating tremendous value, which, of course, is the reason for the juggling act in the first place.

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