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Ben Aston


Simple Steps to Prioritize Projects As a Project Manager

Once you know where your priorities lie, planning will be more accurate

Published: Tuesday, March 17, 2020 - 12:02

A large portion of a digital project manager’s job is making sure the right parts of the project are being worked on. Projects need to be prioritized. Tasks within projects need to be prioritized, too.

Plan View’s Project and Portfolio Management Landscape Report found that prioritization was consistently the second biggest challenge that organizations face. Also, McKinsley surveyed 1,500 professionals and found that only 9 percent were happy with their time allocation.

Many famous writers, businesspeople, and global influencers have stressed the importance of getting your priorities in order.

Mark Twain famously said, “To change your life, you need to change your priorities.”

The same applies to project management.

Prioritization is hard when everything seems important. In our modern workplaces, new tasks fly in and out of our to-do lists all day—and the future is predicted to grow even more complex and chaotic. Everything seems urgent. Everything seems important.

This is the problem many digital project managers have. How are they supposed to decide which project is most important? They’re all important! In this article I’ll show you how to figure out which projects and tasks you should prioritize, and I’ll show you a simple process for prioritizing your tasks and projects as a project manager.

How to prioritize tasks at work

To explore the fundamentals of prioritization, let’s start with prioritizing your own tasks at work.

Step 1: Make a list of your tasks
Write down all the tasks you have to do. Scale it to whatever size you need. This can be a list of tasks you need to do today, this week, or this month. You can:
1. Write them all down on a paper list
2. Add them to a whiteboard
3. Use a mind-mapping tool or other diagramming software
4. Add them as entries in an online calendar
5. Enter them into a task manager with to-do list features

Step 2: Separate urgent from important
The goal of this exercise is to figure out what absolutely must get done as soon as possible. Some tasks are incredibly important but not urgent.

Example: Think back to your university days, where you’d have a big term project due in two months, and a small assignment due the next morning. The term project is more important. However, you have plenty of time to work on it compared to the assignment due tomorrow.

To help you separate urgent and important, you can use the Eisenhower Matrix.

It helps you break this down into different categories:
1. Urgent but not important
2. Important but not urgent
3. Important and urgent
4. Not important and not urgent

Looking at the Eisenhower Matrix, if a task isn’t important and it also isn’t urgent, you should remove it from your list.

Step 3: Delegate tasks
It’s unlikely that every urgent and important task needs to be handled by the project manager. Often, people will take on a task because they think it’ll be quicker if they do it instead of someone else. Though that may be true, you shouldn’t spend your day doing tasks that can be done by others. A project manager has a specialized skill set, and any urgent or important tasks that do not utilize that skillset can be delegated to someone else.

Step 4: Order tasks by effort
By now your list should look much more manageable. After the previous three steps, you should be left with the tasks that you absolutely must do. Now the question is what order to tackle them.

One way to figure this out is to list the tasks that you think will take the most time and effort. How you decide to approach this reordered list depends on your personality. Some people prefer to get the little tasks out of the way early, while others like to go after the meaty tasks straight away.

How to prioritize projects

Much of the advice about prioritizing tasks can be applied to projects. However, there is a specific approach—known as project scoring—that can help you prioritize your projects.

Learn about project scoring
Project scoring is an easy, effective way to figure out which of your projects are of high value and push them to the top of the list. This method ensures that your team is working on the most valuable project at all times. A scoring system is the best way to make an unbiased assessment about which projects will most benefit the business.

You score projects by establishing criteria on which current and potential projects will be evaluated. Generally, it’s also not recommended to evaluate solely on the financial return because there could be costs and time commitments that are hard to predict.

There are lengthy guides on project scoring out there, but for the purposes of this guide, the basic definition above is enough to get us started.

Determine your criteria
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to figuring out your criteria for choosing projects. However, I can help get you started. Here are some project criteria ideas:
1. Number of strategic objectives the project satisfies
2. The project’s return on investment, or ROI
3. How financially risky the project is
4. How resource-intensive the project is
5. How much technical support the project would require
6. How much time for quality assurance the project would require
7. How big of an impact the project would have on your process
8. What resources would effective employee management for the project require?

Consider this set of criteria, and talk with your team about which criteria matters most on your projects. Ask, “What makes a project successful in our organization? What makes it viable? What makes it important?”

Gather your project data
You need data to do project scoring. This is where you may need to meet with your business analyst, project management officer, portfolio manager, program manager, or others in your organization who understand the impact of projects on the organization.

Here are a few questions you can ask about the criteria in order to gather information on the criteria for each project:
• Business alignment: Does the project support the organization’s goals?
• Impact on process: How will taking on the project affect the current workflows? Does your organization have the capacity to take on a project of its size?
• Technical support: Does the organization have the technical capacity to support the project? Is the existing technology sufficient for the project? If not, what’s the long-term benefit of investing in new technology?
• Risk: What’s the risk of this project not meeting expectations or being abandoned? Does the project carry large financial or organizational risks?
• ROI: Though financial return shouldn’t be the only consideration for project scoring, it should still be considered. For-profit organizations should determine the potential ROI and financial value of the project.

Organize your projects in a scoring sheet
Some business analytics tools come with complex project modeling modules, but project scoring can be carried out in a simple spreadsheet if need be. It’ll look something like this:

(Source: North Carolina State University, Evaluation—Scoring and Classification, 2019)

Present your findings

All of this effort put into prioritizing your projects should culminate in a decision. These decisions might include:
1. Deciding to invest in a new project
2. Deciding to assign more or fewer resources to an ongoing project
3. Deciding to put off a project until a different quarter
4. Deciding to look into a project further if there are too many unknowns

To make these types of decisions, you’ll usually be in a room with stakeholders and decision makers. This is the stage of the prioritization process where you present your findings and talk about which projects seem to carry the most weight, and why.

You’re off to the races!

Once you know where your priorities lie—in both your tasks and your organization’s projects—planning will be more accurate. This goes for something as minor as planning out a few hours of your day to planning a large-scale marketing initiative.

With these prioritization techniques, you’ll become a more effective project manager—and you’ll know what you shouldn’t be doing, and why.


About The Author

Ben Aston’s picture

Ben Aston

Ben Aston is a digital project manager and founder of The Digital Project Manager, one of the fastest growing online resources for digital project managers. He has been in the industry for 15 years at top digital agencies including Dare, Wunderman, Lowe and DDB. He has delivered everything from video virals to CMS, flash games, banner ads, eCRM and eCommerce sites across automotive, utility, FMCG, and consumer electronics brands.