How to choose between all the top priorities?

How often do you see your to do list, project plan or your project portfolio and see that there is too much to be done in too little time? In most companies prioritization is an often political process where either the person with the loudest voice 'wins' (for instance sales or a particular CEO) or where metrics are used which tell you little about the possible success of a project or action. When metrics are not available people tend to rely on their gut. All of these ways of prioritizing work do not lead to the best outcomes for your projects or organization. 

So how do you prioritize well?

You need your stakeholders to decide on a decision making process about priorities, preferably when there is not yet a problem with too many priorities. You need to decide on the method and type of validation you require for prioritization. Reaching consensus is nearly impossible. The purpose of designing a decision making process is to collaborate to shared conclusions, which is not the same as consensus. People need to feel that the decisions have been reached in a more or less objective way even if the decision was not the one they wanted. If people feel cheated during this part of the process you will see hurt feelings and the project team will be less effective. 

There are many tools to prioritize work. I start with some of my favorite ones first. There will be more in later blogs.

Eisenhower matrix

The Eisenhower matrix

The Eisenhower matrix is about spotting what is urgent and important and what is not. It helps you to decide what to do first and what later. When you do this for your personal organization you can be flexible in your definition of urgent and important. In a group setting it is important to decide beforehand when something is important (a certain strategic goal for instance) and when something is urgent (something needs to be done within a week). If you do not define urgent and important you will run into differences of opinion and frustration about what gets to be important and urgent and what is not important or urgent. 

I like this matrix because it is intuitive to use. There are four quadrants:

  • Urgent and important: Do these first. The due date for these tasks needs to be soon. A week is already a bit long in this model. Because of the strict time line you need to limit the number of tasks in this quadrant to a number that is possible to finish. Be aware that some urgent tasks are urgent in start date, but less so in due date. Always ask people what happens if the due date is not met to determine true importance and urgency.
  • Important, but not urgent: You need to schedule these tasks. Here you will also need a time limit, or this quadrant will grow too big. Try never to exceed twice the number of tasks in 'do first'. 
  • Urgent, but not important: Delegate these tasks. These tasks are not important for your project, but probably important for another project. Try to delegate these tasks to the other project (s) or people. They will also be better suited to assessing the true urgency of the request.
  • Neither urgent, nor important: Definitely do not do these. This sounds easy, but it is not. People are invested in their request and will not like it when their action lands in this quadrant. This is why it is important to work out in advance when something is important and when something is urgent.

The RICE score

The rice score

In the RICE score you work with validated scores to calculate an overall priority score for your list of projects or actions. I like this one because it is not overly complex, but requires validation. So what kind of numbers do you need?

  • Reach: How many people will be affected by your product in a defined period? If you do not know the exact numbers you can use a relative score (0-5), but it is important to stop short of guessing. If you have no idea be honest about it and try to validate your assumptions before using the RICE score.
  • Impact: You need to choose the goal you want to have impact on and try to validate your assumptions about the impact of your product on this goal. If your goal is about conversion rate on your website you can score the impact on conversion rate. If you do not know the exact number you can use a relative scale. Where 5 is massive impact and 0 is little impact. 
  • Confidence: How confident are you about the success of your product? This implies that you give your assumptions on impact and reach a confidence rating. How sure are you about them 50% or 100%. The purpose of this metric is to control for confirmation bias because of enthusiasm for a certain idea.
  • Effort: You need to estimate this in person months. Make sure you account for everyone you need from operation to staff, from IT to sales. There are many unknowns in estimates like these. Try to round out to whole numbers. Be aware of the human tendency to be overly optimistic about planning.

When you have these estimates you can calculate the RICE score by multiplying impact with reach and confidence and dividing this by the estimate for effort. When you have a RICE score for each project you can sort them according to score. Check whether the listed scores make sense to you when you compare the projects to each other. It is not unusual to have two or three projects that appear to have wrong estimates when you compare them to other projects. It takes some time to calibrate your estimates, so recalculate if necessary. It makes sense to start with the projects with the highest score. But since you may have some time left over after planning two high score projects, it is also not strange to start with a lower score project as well.

These are just two ways of prioritizing work. There are many more. I will get into those in later posts. I hope you enjoyed this one.


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