First published on ProjectManagement.com on December 4th, 2012
We’ve all heard the adage, “By failing to plan, you are planning to fail,” but for IT departments trying to handle myriad work requests on a continual basis, a more apt adage would be “By failing to prioritize, you are planning to fail.” This article is designed to give you a high-level view of how IT teams can prioritize projects, why it’s important and how it benefits the entire company.
Most IT departments develop what they think are a bullet-proof plan for handling IT requests, but outside factors interfere with carrying out that plan effectively. These factors include the “squeaky wheel “(a C-level executive or a persistent individual putting pressure on the IT team to bump a project to the top of the list); people within or outside of the IT department independently determining certain projects should be made higher priority; and the “just do it” mentality where the IT department decides to jump on certain projects, not considering how well the project aligns with the company’s business goals.
Far beyond causing confusion and irritation, prioritizing tasks in a reactive way can be counterproductive. Without a system in place to prioritize IT projects–and tie the successful completion of projects to corporate business objectives–IT teams tend to get blamed for not focusing on their role in helping meet overall business goals and are viewed as a bottleneck rather than a resource.
How does an IT team effectively “democratize” the prioritization of projects in a way that eliminates all of the above-mentioned detractors? It’s actually easier than you might think to set up and to implement: it’s by a system of project scoring.
Project scoring in its simplest terms is a process in which incoming requests are assigned a score based on a generally accepted scoring framework. Project scoring sets a level playing field and allows the IT department to assign project priority based on an objective set of criteria. The benefits of implementing a scoring and prioritization process are immediate and measurable, including:
- Ensuring work that directly drives toward business goals is the highest priority for the IT team
- Confirming that projects currently in the pipeline align with the objectives of the business
- Freeing resource capacity from irrelevant work, which optimizes resources for high-priority strategic projects
- Eliminating IT’s tendency to reactively prioritize work requests based on politically driven decision-making
In general, I recommend a three-part framework to fully and accurately score projects.
1. Categorize Projects
Rather than base criteria on a project’s predicted financial return, we advise using a criteria scale. We think Gartner Research came up with a brilliant (and applicable) idea with its “five perspectives methodology” that categorizes projects in terms of:
- Strategic alignment: How well does the IT investment strategy align with the long-term goals of the business?
- Business process impact: How much would the initiative force the company to change existing business processes?
- Technical architecture: How scalable, resilient and easy to integrate with existing technology are the databases, operating systems, applications and networks that would be implemented?
- Direct payback: What benefits does the initiative have in terms of cost savings, access to increased information or other advantages?
- Risk: How likely is it that the initiative will fail to meet expectations and what are the costs involved?
2. Choose a Project Scoring Model
Just as important as selecting criteria for scoring, I recommend that companies choose a scoring methodology. Scoring methodologies generally come in three flavors:
- No range and unweighted: A project receives one point for each criterion met. Projects are chosen based on the total number of points.
- Range and unweighted: Rather than receiving zero or one point for each criterion, the project is scored on a range (i.e., from one to five). This option provides a more detailed analysis of how projects fit with corporate goals.
- Weighted: In addition to scoring criteria on a range, this option assigns a weighted score for each criterion to determine how important each consideration is to the organization overall. This scoring model best assesses how well a project fits the company’s priorities.
3. Prioritize Projects Based on Plotted Scores
Once a company has chosen a scoring methodology, as a final step it a should prioritize projects based on values such as the project’s relevance to overall strategy, potential return on investment and the amount of risk involved. Plotted scores help prioritize projects with less certain outcomes. In these cases I recommend using visual modeling tools. Visual modeling options include:
- A bubble chart that illustrates strategy (x-axis), return (y-axis) and project size (bubble size)
- A bubble chart that illustrates strategy (x-axis), risk (y-axis) and return (bubble size)
- An organized list sorted by overall score, from high to low
Finally, be aware there are a few pitfalls to avoid when implementing a project scoring system: The system should it developed without input from executives from all departments, in a way that it cannot be easily gamed. A system should be easy enough to use, but hard enough that people can’t artificially inflate scores for their pet projects.