This post was originally published on April 19, 2019, and updated most recently on April 1, 2021.
There is nothing — nothing — more pleasing than crossing something off of your to-do list. Some enjoy the experience so much that they even write down tasks they’ve already completed, just to cross them off.
But this to-do list frenzy won’t last long if you realize you’re adding more things on than you’re crossing off or if you aren’t crossing off the most important or urgent jobs after a ton of hard work.
If you’re a project manager or in charge of any kind of team, then your to-do list (aka product backlog) will be a little more complex than most. This means the methods you use to keep projects running smoothly will need to be a little more involved. When you’re managing a dense, highly dynamic task list, it’s easy for things to spiral out of control fast.
Project management is a topic that’s close to our heart. Backlog — our PM software — is designed specifically to keep managers and their teams on track. And you can’t create a project management tool without knowing a few tricks of the trade. So without further ado, here are our favorite project prioritization tips.
The power of project prioritization
If you’ve never gone through your project backlog to prioritize projects and tasks, doing it for the first time may seem intimidating. But, we guarantee, it’s worth it. Just look at some of these benefits:
- Higher project success rate. On average, with project prioritization, companies deliver a 40% higher value and boast an even higher project success rate. That’s a great reason to get started alone.
- Improved ROI. Not only does a well-aligned company deliver high value overall, but when you break it down, that means a higher return on investment in a lot of segments. That could include money, client and employee happiness, better and faster work being done.
- Improved project quality. Once you’ve prioritized and aligned all the projects and tasks in your backlog, you’ll set a tone for other projects being added. Not only will the projects that you leave behind be a higher quality, but anything added afterward will have to match that same quality. And, as a plus, after you’ve completed the project prioritization process once, it’s easier to keep up.
Leave your emotions behind
We’re not saying you need to be an emotionless robot when it comes to dealing with schedules and priorities. But it’s important to recognize that not only is project prioritization a stressful juggling act. It’s often an exercise in negotiation. Especially if your project involves more than one team. Everyone thinks their task is the most important thing on earth, and some people can be pretty persuasive.
The way to deal with this isn’t to become super-assertive (although a little assertiveness will definitely help). The key is in using data to support your choices.
When you have cold, hard facts on your side, you can make your choices objectively. Moreover, you have sound reasoning to back up your decisions if you need to explain why you’ve moved certain projects to the back of the queue.
Work out your criteria
When it comes to gathering your data, you need to answer a lot of questions, such as:
- What’s the value in solving this problem?
- How will it affect customers?
- What are the project’s dependencies?
- What’s the scope?
- What are the risks?
- What’s the value?
You’ll also need to consider timing, budget, dependencies, revenue potential, and anything else that could be a deciding factor. From there, you can separate tasks into ‘high priority,’ ‘low priority,’ and ‘won’t do.’ Then, you’ll shape a prioritization order.
In the end, you’ll have a strategically prioritized task list. Armed with this info, you’re ready to make strong, considered choices — and explain your decision if questioned.
Top tip: If you need a little extra help when it comes to making those key decisions, read our guide to optimizing your decision-making process.
Make group chats more effective
Group voting via brainstorming sessions is another popular option when it comes to prioritization. But this can be hectic, time-consuming, and emotional. Everyone has their own biases and motivations, and it can be difficult — or impossible — to create a true consensus.
Also, when we brainstorm in a group, the loudest members often end up guiding consensus. Chances are, their projects or task choices will be the ones that receive the most attention. More quiet or passive team members may step back for the sake of amicability or lack of confidence. Unfortunately, these members’ projects are tasks won’t necessarily be the most important to attend to.
The key to getting the most out of these group sessions is to make sure it doesn’t become a free-for-all. Go around the table, one by one, to ensure everyone gets an equal chance to speak. Then, measure each task against your criteria to help you work out the value of each idea.
Top tip: Split this into two shorter meetings, so people have a chance to sit back and reflect in between. In fact, the same goes for any meeting. It’s better to communicate asynchronously, which essentially means team members work out and refine ideas before the catch-up, rather than during it. The result: a shorter, more focused meeting.
Measure your productivity
CEO of Intel Andy Grove, aka the “Father of OKRs,” invented this effective concept known as Objectives and Key Results (OKR). OKRs help you set goals and measure their effectiveness against a set of predefined measurables.
In the end, you should be able to look at the results and say, without any bias, whether or not your goal did what it was supposed to do.
While measurement and evaluation may take place post-project, having them in place makes you consider your objectives more closely from the start. When you know each task will be measured and reviewed for its effectiveness, you and your team will be more likely to prioritize tasks based on how well you think they’ll answer those measurables rather than for any other personal bias.
Another way to measure your productivity is to implement some SMART goals, which help you establish clear objectives from the very beginning, which in turn helps you prioritize your project.
Work out a timeframe
Often, there are more good ideas than you can action. If this is the case, rather than adding them to the ‘low priority’ or ‘not doing’ pile, reschedule them for later. This might mean revisiting them in your next meeting or agreeing to implement them next month or quarter.
That way, your team or organization doesn’t lose out on what is potentially a good, but not timely, idea.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
No man (or woman) is an island, or so the saying goes. And similarly, no project manager can work alone.
A certain degree of caution should be exercised when it comes to big brainstorming sessions. But, it’s always a good idea to speak to team members and gather information prior to setting your project priorities in stone. If you have time and are working on a longer project, consider taking a bottom-up project management approach, which will help give you a fuller picture of the task.
And finally: It’s a great idea to invest in a quality project management tool. It should offer a cloud-based space where every task is prioritized, every team member is accountable, and you’re given automatic progress updates as the project progresses.
This not only improves collaboration and communication between everyone — it also guarantees greater transparency so that if priorities do change, everyone on the team can see the effects in real-time and adapt or respond accordingly.