Prioritizing project work is a challenge for project teams across many industries. While shifting priorities are a natural part of working life, when you don’t prioritize work you can lay havoc to all your team’s projects and initiatives, and even drain team morale.
Effective prioritization is as much an art as a science. Here are some best practices for prioritizing work for your project team.
1. Make the Project Schedule Visible to Everyone
Running a project team without using a schedule that’s accessible by everyone is a sure-fire way to set your team up for problems. At some point during a project an executive is likely to make a demand that shifts priorities; or, another team’s work is delayed and that has a ripple effect. This new information doesn’t always disperse itself through the entire team, so you have some individuals working on either a shelved task, or yesterday’s priority.
To keep team members updated on their top priorities every day, use a collaborative project and work management tool that lets everyone from individuals to managers to stakeholders have unlimited visibility into the project schedule and all the associated work in progress.
2. Create a Project Backlog
A great way to prioritize team work is to use the project backlog concept from Agile software development. This lets you capture all of your project tasks before you assign priorities to team members. A great way to put this into play, is to use a work management application that includes a folder for your backlog tasks; or, create your own team folder for backlog tasks yourself.
The project backlog concept can be an important tool to show management all of the work that falls under your team’s responsibility that still needs prioritization.
3. Manage Your Team for the Long and Short Game
I once worked for a manager prone to distraction because he was eager to please his managers and show off to his office crush. To display his industriousness, he responded to incoming work requests by pulling the whole team off ongoing work, despite looming deadlines. If he used a project schedule, he would have realized the team was almost evenly spread between longer term projects and short-term work.
Instead of always defaulting to all hands on deck, this manager could have pulled a team member or two from a project where the new priority wouldn’t compromise the whole team’s deadlines. Managing the short and the long game means effectively prioritizing work on longer ongoing projects, as well as the shorter projects that will occur as well.
4. Know Your Business
The manager from the preceding point #3 had a few more shortcomings: He didn’t understand the subject matter, the technology or the processes underlying his team’s projects. Further complicating matters, he would take work management advice from his office crush, someone who knew even less than he did about the team’s work. This combination really messed with the team’s priorities.
When you know your business, you’re in a much better position to prioritize project work. Here are some ways to learn more about your business, and continually stay on top of trends:
- Read widely in your field and industry.
- Pursue continuing education.
- Ask each team member about the work being done.
- Learn what matters to your manager, other stakeholders and customers.
When you know the business, and understand how your team’s work fits in to a larger vision, you’ll be able to set the right priorities for your team.
5. Give Project Tasks a Finish Date
Most organizations are kept in business by meeting deadlines and delivery dates, especially manufacturing companies. When team members receive a task that has a deadline attached to it, they’re much more inclined to start that over another one without a finish date. That’s why best laid project plans always include deadlines or finish dates assigned to every task that makes up the project. The dates alone can help both management and team members prioritize their work. And if priorities still aren’t clear, or there are too many overlapping dates, this spurs conversations about project priority and what work most matters to move forward.
6. Add Buffers: Account for Uncertainty in Your Schedule
You can be sure that something unexpected will occur during the course of your project—a stakeholder request, a delay, resource issue, you name it. When you work in an environment that’s especially notorious for shifting priorities, some project or team managers will build in a buffer of time to plans. For example, a buffer could be a few hours or days added to a review period. You can remove a few hours from the buffer without disrupting project delivery while still meeting new priorities.
Another way to do this is to use a project management tool that accounts for uncertainty by letting you make ranged estimates for work and consider best case/worst case scenarios, rather than a single-point deadline. This way the buffer is automatically built in to the schedule.
7. Learn How to Predict Incoming Priority Shifts
I once had a project lead who was able to create a little oasis of productivity and rationality in what was otherwise a dysfunctional organization. His secret was that he could tell when a priority might shift before it even happened.
He did this by becoming a student of project failure and dysfunction; he could identify the exact project milestones where the process might break down and priorities would change.
He took a proactive stance: Whenever he saw a possibility where a priority would shift, he adjusted team priorities and schedules accordingly. The lesson I learned was to always try to be aware of all parts of the project, not just my own responsibilities. The issues that affect your team’s priorities usually begin upstream.
8. Draw the Line between Urgent and Important Tasks
Managing the long and short game also means balancing priorities on urgent and important tasks, and knowing when to draw the line.
Drawing the line means:
- Urgent tasks get immediate attention based on business-critical factors like winning new business and keeping existing business. Getting a check from a customer as the result is often the big decider with urgent tasks for many organizations.
- Important tasks receive ongoing attention, and are only put on hold when an urgent task truly requires all hands on deck. Important tasks support the projects that together keep the business going, so don’t undervalue their priorities.
When a new work request comes in, ask yourself if it falls into Urgent or Important task buckets. If you’re not sure, use it as an opportunity to have a conversation clarifier around what the larger goal is, and structure your priorities from there. You don’t want to be the person always saying “yes” to an incoming “urgent task.” Because as we all know, not every piece of work is business-critical—no matter how much it might feel like it is.
Be a Proactive Manager of Priorities
Your team wants to be working on the right priorities! They want to know that the work they’re doing is the right work to move the business forward, no matter how often priorities change. As a project manager or team leader, it’s up to you to stay proactive in directing the undulations of the team’s priorities. Make sure your team has the tools and schedule access they need to know what their priorities are; get to know what your team is doing, what individuals need, and what your stakeholders are expecting from you.
If you manage priorities effectively, not only will you increase productivity, you’ll improve your team’s morale. Everyone wants to do work that really makes a difference!
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