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How to prioritize projects in product development

Last updated

15 January 2024

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Mary Mikhail

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As new projects roll down the pipeline, issues arise that require immediate attention. With your inbox exploding with questions about project details, you might feel like your wheels are spinning and wonder if your team is focused on the right things.

This is where a project prioritization strategy will come in helpful.

What is project prioritization?

Project prioritization is a system of rating and assigning priority to the tasks at hand. This applies to individuals as well as teams.

You’re likely conducting project prioritization in your head throughout the day, but a formal process allows you to focus and increase productivity.

Teams that follow a strict project prioritization method will be more productive as each member can focus on their most important task. You can shift duties around as necessary to meet the company’s strategic plan. This also helps ensure tasks are assigned to team members with the relevant skills.

What are the five Ds of prioritization?

Not every project or task needs to take priority. Here are the five Ds of prioritization to help you get your projects in order:

  1. Do—if it’s a priority, get it done

  2. Delegate—if it needs to be done but not by you, pass it to someone else

  3. Defer—if it can be delayed, defer the project

  4. Diminish—a project might not require all its components, so focus on delivering just those that are essential

  5. Delete—eliminate any projects that just don’t need doing

Why is project prioritization important?

Whether you work for a small business or a large organization, the tasks that demand your attention every day will pile up uncontrollably unless you manage them properly. Other colleagues will make demands on your time, but their priorities may not match those of your team.

Without an organized project prioritization strategy, your team will be pulled in many directions, possibly falling off schedule on the projects that provide the greatest benefit to your company. These distractions can lead to missed deadlines, product release delays, customer dissatisfaction, employee burnout, and more.

Your team’s inability to focus on vital tasks also affects others in the organization and disrupts the flow that keeps a business running smoothly from top to bottom.

Project prioritization methods

A Google search of project prioritization methods will give you unlimited acronymed ideas for creating a model for your team. However, three standard methods offer you the basic tools to get your team on the right track. You can modify these simple tools to fit your needs and provide a basis for developing a long-term prioritization method that sets your team up for success.

Scoring model

A scoring model is the most adaptable prioritization method. You identify criteria important to your organization and assign a score for each criterion and project.

If you’re handling multiple projects in a large organization, the scoring method lets you develop a model based on historical data and future projections. You can use it to establish a strong base for each prioritization.

Criteria can include factors like budget, return on investment (ROI), resources, risks, hours to complete, deadline, and customer demand. Don’t forget to consider blockers as a category. There may be issues (within and outside of your control) that could prevent a project from moving forward. If you don’t factor these in, your project could stall.

Adaptability is key. Each organization and the units within it have different factors, so you should build your scoring model to best fit your needs. Once you determine your criteria, you assign importance on a scale of 1–5 or 1–10, with one usually being the least important. Then, you add up the total. The project with the highest score should have top priority.

Project prioritization matrix

A simpler method is to adopt a project prioritization matrix. The most common of these is the Eisenhower matrix, where projects are rated on a two-by-two grid based on importance and urgency. You simply rate each project as important or unimportant and urgent or nonurgent.

Projects rated urgent and important fall into the top-left grid and become your priority projects.

Projects rated unimportant and nonurgent fall into the bottom-right grid and can be dismissed or delayed indefinitely.

You can also develop a more complex grid to build a more refined prioritization method.

What is the 3x3 prioritization method?

The 3x3 prioritization method—slightly different from the Eisenhower matrix—measures effort versus impact. Each project is assigned a rating of low, medium, or high for each matrix to determine the location in the 3x3 grid.

What is the Six Sigma prioritization method?

Creating a prioritization matrix is one of seven tools in the Six Sigma methodology for improving workflow. Six Sigma matrices normally factor in multiple weighted factors to judge a project’s value.

Payback period

Appropriately named, the payback period method bases priorities on how soon your unit or company will see a return on investment for each project. You calculate your investment by looking at the actual dollars spent on materials, equipment, wages, and other expenses. Then, work out how quickly the project will pay for itself upon completion.

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Selecting the right prioritization technique

As you consider different prioritization techniques, you should evaluate their effectiveness for you and your team. If you have a large team and multiple projects running simultaneously, a scoring model could be the best option, giving you greater control over the variables that rate importance.

You can use software to help with this analysis. It can even include information like budget and time factors. These programs can be highly effective for large organizations as they also provide data for rating future projects based on how past projects were completed.

A smaller team could benefit from a simple matrix that gives you a quick method and doesn’t consume the valuable time you and your team would otherwise be spending on completing projects.

How to prioritize projects step by step

Now that you have an idea of what type of prioritization method you want to adopt, you just need to take time to implement the system.

Here are seven easy steps to follow to get yourself on a path to project prioritization:

Step 1: List all your projects

This may sound like a simple first step, but you should include all the mundane tasks that might take your time away from working on real projects. For example, if answering emails from the C-suite consumes a chunk of your day, put it on the list so that it’s factored into your project time.

You can also break down larger projects with this method by listing the tasks needed to complete the larger project.

Step 2: Determine priority criteria

Establishing one set of criteria that can be applied to all your projects is the only way the project prioritization method will be successful. You don’t want to end up comparing apples to oranges by creating different criteria for different types of projects.

That said, you might want to vary your criteria slightly if you are establishing task priorities within a larger project.

Step 3: Assign weight to your criteria

The criteria you select won’t all carry the same importance, so it’s best to assign weight to your criteria, too.

For example, if expenses are being carefully managed in your company, budget could be a high priority. Or maybe you work for a startup with venture capital investment, and your employees are encouraged to work around the clock. In that case, the budget may be a low priority.

The simplest way to weigh your formula is to assign an x-factor to each criterion. For example, you may give deadlines with the highest priority a 3x factor. Something with low priority may get a .5x factor, thereby reducing its influence on the final decision.

Step 4: Review and validate

Step back a bit and review where you are to ensure you have established a valid and workable set of criteria. Your thinking may have changed a bit during the weighting process. This is also a good opportunity to review your plan with a mentor to get feedback before you get down to the nitty gritty work of scoring your projects.

Step 5: Get team input

As a project leader, you need to take the lead in this role. On the other hand, you also want to include input from your team members so you gain buy-in to the prioritization process.

This is the most important step in the process if you are going to develop a prioritization method that will meet the best interests of the company and your staff.

Step 6: Calculate the total scores

The simple step of calculating the scores gets you to your final analysis. If you put weighting factors into the formula, make sure you do those calculations before adding up the total.

For instance, if a looming deadline rates a 10 with a 3x factor, that’s going to add 30 points toward the total. Once you add up the scores, those with the highest total will become your team’s top priorities.

Step 7: Discuss and adjust your prioritized list

While science and math might underpin these methods, a few factors may encourage you to adjust your list.

If two projects come in with similar priorities and you know one will take your team two days while the other will take two weeks, you might want to tackle the two-day project first for a quick win. There’s something to be said for checking projects off the list to gain momentum.

Five signs your project prioritization process is broken

As you adopt a formal project prioritization strategy in an effort to improve your company or team’s ability to get things done, you might meet resistance from above and below.

Prepare to back up your ideas by showing where your company is falling short. Evaluate the following areas to prove your company’s project prioritization process is broken:

1. Many projects are failing

Not every project is destined for success, but if your company is below the industry standard for failure, you could have issues from the ground up.

44% of projects fail because they don’t align with organizational objectives. Ask why your company is wasting time on projects that should never have started in the first place.

2. You have too many projects

You likely started looking into project prioritization because you have too many projects on your plate. Other departments and executives may not realize you have more projects than your team has resources for unless you lay out all the initiatives taking place.

3. You have no idea how many projects you have

Is your team juggling so many projects that you don’t know what they are or how to allocate your resources? With projects flowing in from different sources and without any thought to how they are assigned and their priority, your colleagues are likely feeling overwhelmed and burned out.

4. Most projects are priority one

If too many projects are your top priority, no project is your top priority. Your team members will lag and fall behind their deadlines if they are diffusing their efforts across multiple projects.

5. Pet projects

Pet projects are top-down initiatives driven by the personal interests of your CEO, division head, or any other C-level executive.

Focus on showing the individual how their pet project stacks up against all the other projects in the pipeline and how it may not focus as much on company objectives.

The Amazon Fire Phone is an example of a pet project. Engineers worked on it because Jeff Bezos wanted it, not because it was part of the company’s strategy.

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