As an organization matures and its project portfolio expands, PMs may discover they’re increasingly faced with the need to prioritize the various initiatives that are vying for attention and other resources. It’s a natural progression but project teams often encounter some surprising hurdles as they work to tackle and streamline the process of prioritization. For some executive groups, identifying which projects are important and which aren’t is more difficult than expected. It’s a critical step in project portfolio managment and maintaining a healthy portfolio, though, because if you think you can simply continue forward without some firm agreements on which projects are worth the company’s time, funding, and other resources, you’re in for some unpleasant surprises.
For any PM who’s struggling to work out a way to prioritize their portfolio—and perhaps considering just dropping the exercise entirely to keep the peace—consider what really happens when every project is a priority.
Gaining consensus among stakeholders, sponsors, and executives becomes a sticking point. Those projects that rise to the top of the priority list are usually obvious—they’re required to continue doing business, to maintain the company’s market position, or to keep the revenue streams flowing. Where PMs are more likely to encounter disagreement is at the lower end of the priority scale. Which projects will have only a limited impact on the organization’s future, for example? Or which initiatives on the list are expected to deliver benefits to only a small group of departments? Getting the senior leadership to acknowledge that a project may not warrant significant attention in the near future can require much more time and effort than PMs expect.
Pet projects are stickier than you think. Achieving consensus is even more difficult if one of these low-priority initiatives is an executive’s pet project. They may have a vested interest in seeing the initiative remain on the active list but they’re often reluctant to publicly go to bat for these types of efforts, which typically fall into the category of delivering limited value. Carrying out productive discussions about efforts that are personally important to someone on the senior leadership team are sometimes tricky as a result, and getting concessions on where they rate on the priority scale can often takes time and persistence.
Eliminating a project can be extraordinarily difficult. Even when there’s some level of agreement that an initiative is low on the priority list, PMs may have a very tough time getting the approval to actually remove the project from the team’s list of active efforts. Why is eliminating projects important in the long run? Because every project in the portfolio requires some level of management and oversight, whether it’s reevaluating where the project sits on the priority list each time a new project is added to the portfolio or simply tracking the effort’s resource needs when budget time rolls around. Companies can’t support unrealistic project lists and it’s critical that teams have the ability to trim those initiatives that won’t deliver real value to the organization.
Resources will run out eventually. If the leadership team isn’t able or willing to de-prioritize and delete projects as it becomes necessary, PMs can expect that resource management challenges won’t be far off. Few companies have enough employees in-house and enough funding available to keep every project on the active list. The bigger concern, though, is that low-priority efforts will continue to consume at least some portion of the organization’s limited resources, making those assets unavailable to the projects that really need them. Employees will spend their time and departments will spend their money on initiatives that may not ever reach completion.