Managing priorities effectively

Neal Whitten, PMP

As a project troubleshooter, I am frequently requested to perform project reviews in order to assess the health of a project. In all cases, the number one problem I discover is that the most important project problems are not receiving the urgent attention they need.

In every project, there are problems and there are problems. Whenever a project's known problems are listed, there are always some that stand out as being urgent. These high-priority problems might change many times throughout the life of the project, but the level of attention they receive will have a major impact on the health of the project. Neglecting these problems for lower-priority problems is like buckling your seat belt at the end of a trip. Some items demand attention first—to ensure a successful journey.

Lesson: “Drift” occurs on projects whose priorities are not managed well.

If a project's leadership is unable or unwilling to focus the project's resources on solving the most important problems first, then the project and its participants will drift. Drifting has a serious, negative effect on many areas of the project. These effects include lower productivity, longer schedules, lower morale, lower quality, increased rework, and maybe even the eventual death of the project.

This article shows you how to identify and work the most important problems—the priorities—on a project. Working intelligently has a lot more going for it than just working hard. Project success doesn't just happen. For the most part, it is predictable and controllable.

When a project's most important problems are not receiving the attention they require, almost everyone on the project can see it happening. Yet everyone, it seems, has a “valid” excuse for not taking the necessary action: They are too busy to take time to identify and then deal with the most important problems. The claims are that, if the main problems are focused on with the intensity required, then too many other areas of the project will suffer. As one of the newer project leaders might quip at the end of a tumultuous project, “If I had to do it all over on the next project, I would probably do it the same way. It was just an aggressive project.”

Don't believe it!

Solve the Most Important Problems First

Lesson: Project leaders must not be too far removed from the major project problems—or too close.

It is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day flurry of activities, allowing the onslaught of daily problems to consume every inch of each day's mile. When this happens, there is a strong tendency to delegate more and to become further removed from the endless, revolving list of problems. This situation can lead to a loss of control. If you are a project leader, you cannot afford to be too far removed from major problems and decisions. The further removed you are, the greater the chances for the project to enter the drift zone. The drift zone is recognizable when the items listed in Figure 1 occur.

Figure 1. Symptoms of the “Drift Zone”


Figure 2. Steps for Managing Priorities


There is another, although opposite, reaction to the endless emergence of problem after problem. That reaction is to actually get closer to all the problems, to actively cultivate the view that “unless I personally fix these problems, they won't be fixed correctly and a bad situation will get worse.” Unfortunately, this approach is also disastrous. The project head or a project leader becomes a critical path to getting problems resolved. Progress will ultimately slow down, not speed up. Displays of ownership from those who should be solving these problems will wane, as will the morale, productivity, and schedules.

Lesson: The project's leadership is responsible for ensuring that the project's most important problems are receiving the attention necessary to solve and close them as soon as possible.

What option is left? Stay abreast of the most important problems and allow those around you to handle all other problems. Frequent and regular project tracking meetings will keep you as informed about the problems of lesser importance as you need to be. It is the more important problems that can cause the most harm to the project. The project leadership must manage these problems directly or be confident that they are being properly managed by others.

How do you decide which problems to get directly involved with and to what extent you should be involved? Figure 2 identifies the four steps to follow. Adherence to these steps will allow you to maintain the control necessary to yield the successful closure of your most critical problems.

Step 1: Pinpoint Priorities. At any given point in a medium or large project, there can be literally hundreds of problems that are known and being solved. Most of these are typical, business-as-usual problems. Examples of business-as-usual problems are those found while:

  • Reviewing or using the product specifications
  • Inspecting the design
  • Writing and updating the product publications
  • Conducting routine project tracking meetings.

There are also the major problems, those problems that inhibit others from doing their job, problems that have a major impact on the well-being of the project, the product, and the people involved. These are the project's most critical problems to solve—the high-priority problems. These problems are currently impacting a major project milestone or, based on current progress, are expected to impact a major project milestone.

Examples of high-priority problems are listed in Figure 3. This list of high-priority problems may vary from project to project, or from one phase of the project to the next.

The first thing to do in managing the most important project problems is to list them. One person can start this list. However, if only one person is assigned to generate the list, it might be limited by the relatively narrow viewpoint of that person. A useful approach is to assemble the project leaders and ask each of them to list the top three problems that they recognize. Then compile all the problems on a single list. Using this list as a base, and the synergism from the assembled team, then brainstorm for additional items.

Of course, every problem on the list will not have the same priority within the project. Once the list is considered complete, prioritize it by placing the most important problems—the priorities—at the top. One prioritizing approach is to ask each person to select their top three problems from the list. Then, for each item on the list, note the number of votes it received. The top three-to-five priorities should quickly become apparent.

Usually a project cannot effectively work more than five or so “top” priority problems at once; therefore, focus on only a few at a time. When those are solved, move on to solving the next set of high-priority problems. And so on.

Lesson: The high-priority problems should be visible daily to all project members that are affected, either directly or indirectly.

The project head should post these high-priority problems on his or her office blackboard, wall, or in some visible area near or in the office so that they are reinforced throughout each day. All project members that are, in any way, affected by these project priorities should be aware of their importance to the project and know that they are currently being worked. Each high-priority problem is also logged as an “action item” to become part of the formal routine project tracking system.

Other project leaders can follow a similar process for identifying the top important problems within their areas and can also display the list in an easily seen location. However, it is absolutely essential for the top problems across the project area to which they apply to be publicized for every impacted project leader and project member to see and understand. The project leaders must fully support these priorities when applying their resources. They must also ensure that other activities being implemented do not conflict with these priorities.

Lesson: Assign one person to own both the problem and its solution.

Step 2: Assign One Owner to Each Problem. Assign lead people to own high-priority problems. The same person must also own the proposed solution. The notion of accountability is key here. Also, only one owner should be assigned for each problem. Often, the effectiveness of quickly and efficiently resolving a problem is inhibited when two or more people jointly share responsibility for solving it.

Step 3: Commit to a Course of Action. The following example illustrates an error that causes many projects to miss the mark:

John Clark is assigned to fix a problem. It is an urgent matter that must be corrected within two weeks. This is considered a very short time period, but with the proper attention, it should be able to be closed within the two weeks. It is “obvious” what the journey to reach a solution must be. Therefore, Clark is left to his own devices to close the problem.

One week later, Clark presents the status of the problem resolution. It doesn't appear that the problem can be closed within the remaining week. Perhaps, if more time and a more intelligent effort had been spent on the problem during the first week, it could have been closed within the two-week goal. The project's leadership reviewing the status information suggests that the approach be reset and asks for a status update at the end of the following week.

Figure 3. Examples of High-Priority Problems


At the end of the next week, Clark declares he is still a few days away from closing the problem. Some refinements are suggested to his approach and no additional status meeting is scheduled. It is assumed that the problem will be closed during the following week. No further status meeting is scheduled. The problem will not be closed.

Lesson: If there was ever a problem that requires a plan to ensure it is properly solved and closed, then it is a high-priority problem.

What is missing in the above scenario? No detailed plan or course of action was required. A problem that is recognized as one of the hottest in the project and, to boot, must be closed in just two weeks, should be a clear signal that each day counts. Therefore, a committed, detailed plan must be required from the person assigned to resolve the problem. Do not accept the comeback, “With the time it will take me to build a detailed plan, I could have had most of the problem solved.” This response only reinforces the need for a detailed plan— if not out of necessity, then for insurance. This plan should spell out not only the events to be completed each day, but also the dependent parties who are required to resolve the problem successfully. The plan should be approved by the project head as well as by those who are performers. All of this preparation helps to ensure that the problem is solved the first time.

Lesson: As a project leader, always spend more time on solving the most important project problems than on solving the less important problems.

Step 4: Review Progress Daily. Time is scarce for a project head and his or her project leaders. That is why it must be wisely invested. Project leaders should not spend 80 percent of their time on low-priority project problems and 20 percent on high-priority problems. Eighty percent of a leader's time should be spent on the most important problems. However, there is a strong attraction to work almost exclusively on the lesser problems. Minor problems tend to be easier to solve than major problems, and it is satisfying to see frequent accomplishments. But resist! Deal with important problems first.

Some form of status must be pursued each day on each of the high-priority problems. Tracking these problems daily will help ensure that they close as quickly as possible and close appropriately. What is meant by “appropriately”? It is not enough to close these high-priority problems, they must also be closed with solutions that really fix the problem in an acceptable manner. For example, if a high-priority problem is to obtain hardware with which to perform a product's system test, the problem is not necessarily closed by simply soliciting a commitment for the hardware. The hardware must also be available in time for system test to meet their schedule commitments.

Lesson: High-priority problems require attention every day.

The daily tracking meetings can be formal, with the appropriate participation by those involved, or simply a five-minute briefing against each established plan. It is not so important as to how these high-priority problems are tracked as it is to track the progress daily.

The status of a project's most important problems should be shared with everyone at the project's routine project tracking meetings.

Measure of Success

Lesson: The high-priority problem list must be routinely reexamined to ensure the list always reflects the latest and most important problems.

The top-priority problems in a project will likely change many times throughout the life of the project. This high-priority problem list must be reevaluated at regular intervals. Weekly evaluations are preferred, although twice-weekly evaluations can be best for projects that are starting a list for the first time. Evaluations can be as infrequent as once every two weeks for mature, structured projects that have been managed according to a high-priority problem list for some time. Of course, a meeting is not always required to determine whether a new addition should be made to the list. The project head, or designated person such as the “project tracking leader” must exercise authority in changing the problems on the high-priority problem list when the need to do so arises; however, any changes made must be clearly and timely communicated to all those who might be affected. This is essential in maintaining control and a respectable productivity within the project. After awhile, the use of the high-priority problem list will be an established activity and focusing on it will become automatic.

Lesson: A measure of an effectively-run project is the swift attention to, and closure of, the high-priority problems.

A good way to measure how effective an organization is at responding to its major problems is to compare the high-priority problem list from one month to the next. If the same items are present, something is wrong and the organization is still suffering from drift. That is, too much time is spent doing rework and too little in working effectively. The organization is drifting from one activity to the next without achieving a clear closure on earlier activities. Or it may be entering the next set of activities before those activities are fully ready.

Lesson: A well-managed high-priority problem list helps the project members to not lose sight of the forest.

A side benefit in focusing so intensely on the high-priority problem list is that participants learn how to see the whole picture and, therefore, become less susceptible to spending too much attention on tangents of lesser value. This skill is one that project heads require in order to manage effectively. It is also a skill seen most often in the more productive and effective project leaders. img


This article is excerpted from Managing Software Development Projects, Second Edition by Neal Whitten. Copyright ©1995 John Wiley and Sons, Inc. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley and Sons, Inc. To order a copy of this book, call 800/225-5945. The first edition was a Wiley best-seller. Although the book focuses on software projects, most of the book's material also applies to non-software projects.

Neal Whitten, PMP, is president of The Neal Whitten Group, Roswell, Georgia, and a member of the Georgia PMI Chapter. His book, Becoming an Indispensable Employee in a Disposable World, was published in 1995 by Pfeiffer & Company.

PM Network ● July 1995



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