Project Management Institute

Project prioritization - why not do it?

Concerns of Project Managers


Sandra E. Chillous, El. DuPont de Nemours, Wilmington, Delaware

In today's environment, most organizations are attempting to complete an ever-growing number of projects. Often an organization's management intuitively grasps the importance and the necessity of “managing projects” to help accomplish this goal. To suggest otherwise would imply that what the organization really needs is “unmanaged projects,” which is equivalent to… well… chaos (the reality, not the science). These same managers will return an empty stare at the suggestion that the process used to select which projects to manage is as important as actually managing the projects. To suggest that a rigorous selection process be used and that these projects be assigned a priority to determine which projects are budgeted and staffed is to invite a wave of resistance. The basis for this resistance is that prioritization usually means that some projects may be stopped or delayed. This change is often unsettling. Resistance to the concept of project prioritization is frequently encountered. Outlined below are some of the reasons managers give for not wanting to design or use a selection/ prioritization process, as well as some rationales that can make facing the change seem easier.


1. “We might miss something really important.” The fear that the big one might get away. This is usually accompanied by a feeling of fallibility or Murphy's Law that says, if we stop a project, that would probably be the one that would have been the gold mine. To address this fear it is necessary to consider what really happens when organizations don't prioritize. By not selecting which projects to focus on, many organizations try to do too much at once. This usually results in all the projects progressing (use the word loosely) at a much slower rate. By trying to do everything because of the fear of missing a project that might be important we doom projects that are known to be important.

2. “We don't do a good job of it, so what's the use.” I refuse to accept the defeatist attitude that says that because we aren't good at something, we shouldn't even try! Good Lord, get a grip! Typically, it becomes apparent how ridiculous this sounds when it is repeated aloud. “So you're saying, because we've never done it well, we shouldn't even both to try?” An important factor that many people fail to face is the cold, harsh reality—you won't do it perfectly the first time, and you will make mistakes. Face it, accept it, move on. The good news is that, if done properly, new learnings come with each iteration!

3. “The quality of the information we use is so poor, we'd only be fooling ourselves.” There is a school of thought that holds that an enormous amount of irrefutable data is necessary to prioritize projects. Since there's never enough data, projects are never delayed or killed. Evaluating projects and collecting and synthesizing the data for their evaluation is a learned skill. Simply having evaluation requirements will cause some of the gaps to close. Accountability and appropriate tracking will improve the quality of the data over time.

4. “Our philosophy is to overload our people, this forces them to do the prioritization (the cream will rise).” Believe it or not, this is not an uncommon technique, although it is uncommon for managers to be able to verbalize that this is the situation. If employees are overloaded, they are forced to decide what is more important on an individual basis. The problem with this is that line employees frequently do not have the knowledge necessary to make informed decisions for the organizational entity. Since they are prioritizing work on an individual basis, coordination across functions is difficult if not impossible. The cream of the projects will rise? They are more likely to curdle with neglect.

5. “We have prioritized… all of these projects are the really important ones.” How to break the news that the prioritization was not effective? It's like Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegone, where “All the children are above average.” Some things speak for themselves. A simple technique to help managers become more honest about project assessments is the following question. If all of these are really important and it's important to get them completed in this timeframe and we can demonstrate that they will deliver this return, why haven't we contracted or hired resources to staff this? (This response usually begins with “Well...”) Very few organizations are awash in an excess of truly great projects. Project lists are similar to gases, they expand to fill the available people. Unlike gases, however, they do not automatically reduce volume when people are removed (but they do manage to increase organizational pressure).

6. “We don't have time to come up with a process or list, we're too busy doing real work.” The truth is, if the time is taken to prioritize, people would not have to be so busy. Always remember, just because there is a lot of activity, it doesn't necessarily mean that a lot of work is being done!

7. “No one can agree, so we each do what we want (or take turns choosing) and everybody's happy.” There are some organizations where the norm is “conflict avoidance.” These organizations believe that prioritization will lead to conflict, since many of the individuals involved would have “a pet project” led to the slaughter of project death. If we assume for a moment that the purpose of the organization is to accomplish some other goal than to make these individuals happy, the path becomes obvious. On the other hand, if we assume that individual happiness is paramount and that accomplishment of the best projects is necessary for the survival of the organization, then consider whether the individual will be happy if his project survives momentarily, but the entire organization fails? Again, the choice is obvious. If the status quo is maintained, while the “pet” project is not killed, it is doomed to limp along with insufficient resources along with all the rest until someone grants it a mercy killing. Is that humane?

8. “We are not psychics.” When I am in the kitchen and I drop an egg on the kitchen floor, I'm pretty sure it will break. I have great success at predicting these and similar future events, but I have no psychic ability. The answer to the above objection, “We are not psychics,” is, “You don't have to be!” To evaluate projects it is helpful to:

• Be a good historian/record keeper.

• Analyze current and past successes/ failures.

• Be a good observer and questioner.

There are many projects that have failure written all over them. A few questions would have been all it took to avert the expenditure of millions of dollars. The trick is to become skilled with the talents available.

9. “priorities change on a daily basis, we're in a dynamic system, any prioritization process would be too cumbersome for the real world.” This is usually a sign of an organization trying to control chaos. While there is a degree of dynamism built into any system, many systems have the added turbulence caused by poor planning superimposed upon them. It is possible to have a dynamic prioritization process. Something that is the number one priority today may not necessarily be the number one priority forever. However, the change frequency should be compared with the duration of the project. If changes occur every few days, but the project cycle is a week, that is not a problem. If there are changes every few days, but the project cycle is two years, there are probably deep-seated organizational issues that need to be addressed before stability can be brought to the project management/project prioritization process.

10. “We already know the winners...there's no need for time-wasting rigor.” Good! If the winners are known, it should not take much time to demonstrate this. Does this organization have a good hit rate? Does the organization do tracking to indicate success in knowing winners? How often are they wrong? I can only say that most of the time I'm told this, it is a misconception. Rose-colored rear-view mirrors display a few successes, but somehow do not reveal the many failures.

11. “We have plenty of people and time…they have to do something, so it might as well be this.” This is a rare situation. There are few companies and industries that are not resource-constrained. If it is true that there is a predetermined amount of resources and the organization is bent on using them unwisely, then perhaps it is time for a philosophical reevaluation of the organization. If projects can't bring value, maybe the organization would be better off giving the employees paid vacation. At least they aren't spending more company money while they are gone!


1. Scrutiny of projects leads to learning and improvement. Asking the right questions and trying to answer them can bring more value than the answers.

2. Obtaining higher quality prioritization data is a learned skill that improves with each cycle.

3. Prioritization allows organizations to do more value-added work with less effort.

4. Tracking project performance is necessary to allow an organization to identify successes and failures. It provides some of the raw materials that allow learning to occur.

Now that the organization is primed and ready to prioritize and thinks that this is a good idea, several questions arise. How do I get started? What should the criteria be? Who should do it?

Good questions… but, that is another story. img


Sandra E. Chillous is a graduate of Howard University and The Ohio State University. She has worked for several Fortune 500 companies over the past 15 years. Her experience as a member and leader of project teams for product development led her into the field of consulting, with an emphasis in business process reengineering. Dr. Chillous is currently a consultant working in the area of continuous business improvement for E.I. DuPont de Nemours.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PMNETwork • March 1994



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