What should you do when you receive many project requests, and every one is a top priority? Start with the quick wins? Tackle the biggest ones first?
The answer is actually none of the above. Some projects may take your team three hours to knock off, but they could end up derailing an important 35-hour project. If you decide to eat the frog and tackle the biggest project first, what happens if the smaller ones are important and urgent?
Instead of focusing on project size or quick wins, a better way to prioritize projects is to assess the following:
- How each project aligns with business goals
- What your resource capability is like
- How urgent a project is, and what’s at stake if you don’t complete it
There are six stages in the prioritization process, outlined in the infographic below. Read on to see how to make the best decision at each stage.
1. Assess projects for business value
You risk losing money, time, or other resources with every project. Assessing projects ensures that the expected outcome is worth the resources you risk.
To determine which projects are worth your time, weigh each project to see how they contribute to business goals like:
- Generating revenue
- Improving brand image and reputation
- Satisfying customers
High-value projects will often be the ones that directly generate the most significant revenue—like launching a new product or service. But they could also be projects that maintain or lead to meaningful business relationships.. For instance, an agency may prioritize work for a well-known brand, even at discounted rates.
Senior Project Manager at CampfireLabs Morgan Smith says, “We take into account a number of things there, whether that's the literal revenue that an account is worth, or what our relationship with them is (which is really important).”
While you may not directly profit from investing in relationships, the social proof and referrals that may come from it make it worth it. These are projects that bring value to your business, even if you don’t see the impact immediately.
If you aren’t clear on your business goals yet, start by bringing together your executives to brainstorm. Ask questions like:
- What is our organizational purpose?
Possible answer: To help small businesses optimize their processes.
- What brand image and reputation are we trying to project?
Possible answer: Low-cost yet effective, caring.
- What milestones would we hit over the next five years to say we’re successful?
Possible answer: Launch 10 new customer-requested features, build a community of 300,000 fans.
- What does success not look like for us?
Possible answer: A high-profile exit, a fancy website, working with Fortune 500 brands.
Once you have answers that paint a clear picture of what your organization wants to achieve, filter all projects, so you're only looking at value-aligned projects. Prioritize the projects that align with business value!
For example, a project to optimize internal operations has businesses value if it helps the company get rid of inefficiencies and focus on work that matters. But, a project to redesign the website may not have business value, if the current website helps us hit lead goals and gets complimented by customers.
One business value that is easy to overlook is the project's impact on employee health. If a project is so taxing that it contributes to burnout and turnover, it may be worth refusing it. After all, it costs up to twice an employee's salary to replace them when they leave!
2. Filter projects for urgency
There are projects you’ll need to tackle fast to avoid disrupting essential business functions (or to prevent loss). Fortunately, not all projects are urgent—even if they may seem like they are.
Apply your list of projects to the Eisenhower Matrix (a task management framework used to prioritize tasks based on importance and urgency). Your projects will be grouped into four categories:
- Important and urgent – Crises that impact the business, like a crashed website or a client project handled by a team member who falls sick close to the deadline.
- Important and not urgent – Things that impact the business in the long run but can wait, e.g., optimizing processes and building business relationships.
- Urgent and not important – Trivial projects that demand immediate attention without adding much value (like the majority of meetings!).
- Not urgent and not important – Trivial projects that can wait, e.g., sorting and organizing emails.
To decide which project goes where on the Eisenhower Matrix, ask yourself:
- Does this project contribute to the business goals we’ve established? Yes? Then it’s important.
- Will something go wrong if we don't complete this project ASAP? Yes? Then it’s urgent.
You’ll find the projects with business value fall into either the important/urgent category or the important/not urgent one. Prioritize the projects that are both urgent and important!
3. Map out project dependency
Work projects often depend on tasks that need to be completed before another one can begin. Sometimes, you’ll even have tasks that need to be completed in tandem and/or tasks that must start or finish at the same time.
Without knowing what dependencies exist within a project, you may start a project only to realize halfway through that you need input from a stakeholder who’s away on vacation.
To map project dependencies:
- List all the tasks and subtasks involved in each project you wish to tackle.
- List the roles responsible for each task and the stakeholders to be consulted.
- List all blockers for each task, including any preceding tasks that need to be completed and crucial stakeholder approval.
Once you have those listed (or mapped), you will see the projects with the least amount of dependencies. That way, you can prioritize them while you plan ahead for projects with major dependencies.
Sometimes a complete project stands as a blocker for another project. When that happens, prioritize the blocking project. For instance, if you want to improve the onboarding experience at your organization, you may first need to create learning and development resources. That’s an independent project that blocks the successful completion of the first one.
Laura Roeder, founder of Paperbell, includes a column called blockers? in her project management tool. She checks that when a project depends on another, and then she digs into what those blockers are sothey can “resolve those first before making it a live project.”
4. Estimate the scope, timeline, and costs of each project
Scope, timeline, and costs represent the triple constraint in project management. Any of those interdependent elements can negatively impact the project, so the goal is to confirm that each is practical for your team.
Document all tasks associated with your projects. For example, if you're building a marketing campaign, you’ll need to analyze the results too. The scope, therefore, includes all the copy, design, and tracking parameters used after the campaign has launched.
- Estimating scope - An accurate way to assess scope is to look at past projects or speak with people who have completed similar projects to discover what's involved.
- Estimating timelines - If possible, interview at least three different people who worked on similar projects to get an accurate estimate of how much time it took to complete those.
- Estimating costs - Look at the cost of the tools you’ll need, as well as the hourly rates of the people who’ll work on the project, multiplied by the time it will take to complete.
Brian Ragone, founder of Puzzle says to “prioritize projects through process costing.”
Brian and his team strip down projects into steps and calculate the cost of each by asking three questions:
- How much time does this step take our team in hours (fraction of hours count)?
- How often do we need to do this step within the project?
- What is the estimated hourly rate of the person who does this work?
Then they calculate the cost using the formula “Time x Frequency x Hourly Rate = The costs of doing this step,” says Brian.
Once you’ve estimated each element of the triple constraint, you can confirm that your team has the capacity to perform the full scope of the project, and that the costs it will incur are worth the ROI it generates.
Having a hard time estimating scope, timeline, and costs? A resource management software can help determine your team’s true capacity. With Float, you can monitor how long your resources actually spend on projects so you have data-driven estimates for future projects. Here’s what that looks like.
Plan and prioritize projects in a single place
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5. Assess your budget against project costs
Weigh the budget you’ve received against the estimated cost you arrived at (from the previous section) before you start. Will the money you have approved cover the estimated cost to complete the project? If it won’t, then your project will likely stop halfway.
All else being equal, prioritize the projects with full budget approval.
Of course, projects often go over budget, so what’s most important is being ready to track costs as they happen. For example, if you’re using a resource management software like Float, you can see if employees or contractors log more hours than planned, and track any extra costs.
6. Assess your team’s bandwidth against project scope and timelines
Are the people working on the project skilled enough to handle each step for the full scope and timeline? Confirm this prior to beginning to avoid a scenario where you are only able to deliver subpar work!
Using Float to track and assess the bandwidth of your team makes it easy to see:
- Who has the right skills for a project
- Who is available and who is on time off
- When people who are on time off resume
- Who is working overtime
That way, you can pinpoint the projects within your team’s bandwidth and know when you’ve exceeded it.
Cross-functional collaboration is also key here. Other departments (like sales, for instance) need to understand the bandwidth of departments they request work from. “I work very closely with our sales team. If we have 10 brand new clients that want to sign with us, do our writers actually have that bandwidth? So there's a lot of communication that happens between us to make sure of that, ” says Morgan from Campfire Labs.
Prioritize projects that align with your team’s bandwidth. A resource management software like Float can help with this. Float allows you to centralize your people and projects in a visual timeline, so you can always see who’s working on what, and when. Manage the team’s availability in one place, with standard work hours, planned work, and time off in a single view. Get an overview of capacity at a team and individual level, with a snapshot of scheduled vs. available hours, so you can plan balanced workloads and forecast project success.
Project prioritization is an ongoing process
To ensure you’re staying on top of all projects and can prioritize new ones, you must:
Establish a project request process
Project requests don’t stop rolling in just because you’ve listed and prioritized current projects.
You should create a single entry point for all projects to avoid urgent project request emails from inundating your inbox.
Use the project prioritization framework we’ve shared to draft questions that need to be answered by your team before you launch a project. Alternatively, collaborate with your team to decide what information you typically need for each project.
You can ask questions that answer the what, why, when, and who, like:
- What is the request?
- How does it benefit the business?
- When is it due?
- Who are the stakeholders?
Configure your forms so you get notified of new project requests. And don’t forget to announce the process and redirect people to the form you’ve created.
Track the right data
The project prioritization process is a science that’s fueled by data and—sometimes—a little sprinkling of gut check.
Get it right and you can dedicate your resources to the projects that move the biggest needles for your organization. You can also avoid costly mistakes that result from team members overworking themselves to meet deadlines.
Pro tip: Track time to stay on top of project progress
Float’s time tracking is integrated with planned work to easily log time against scheduled tasks. With project budgets, people’s rates, and logged time in one tool, you can track progress more efficiently.
Tracking all of your team’s data makes it easy to show executives how you’ve efficiently allocated resources in the past. That way, you get buy-in and budget increases for those projects that matter most to you in the future!