Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Demonstrating PMO Value - Why Prioritization is Important

OK - everyone hates having to decide which project is more important than which. Frankly, I find that a little disheartening since setting priorities and direction is exactly what we look for in senior management. It seems that some senior managers (not the ones I work with mind you) think that everything is important and that their job is to get you to understand that and just "get it done." - Crap

Some facts:
1. Unless you are working at some idiot factory, there will always, always be more good ideas for projects than there will be people to do them. The day there are more people than projects, you might want to update your resume, because sooner or later management will figure that out.

2. Corollary to fact 1: YOU CAN’T DO THEM ALL – duh. I was in one meeting where I tried to explain this and was told that we would just hire more people if we didn’t have enough, so unless you have an unlimited budget, you probably can’t do all your projects – certainly not at the same time. If you tried to do them all, you would probably still be working on a punch-card to CICS conversion today.

3. SOMEONE IS ALREADY PRIORITIZING PROJECTS. Admit it, when a worker has 20 projects all equally important, what do they do? They do the fun one, the interesting one, the one that their buddy over there wanted, the one their boss wanted, the last one someone asked about….. Not the optimum prioritization method. Now image you have 10 people working simultaneously on 10 projects all equally important. What are the odds that any 2 people are even working on the same project at the same time (I know statistically the odds are good, but you get the point). So everyone works on whatever project until someone with some pull tries to get them all together on the “hot” project. We then drop everything, work that project for a while and the others languor in neglect until one of those becomes hot – this is not a logical prioritization method.

4. Sometimes, less is more, slower is faster…. There was an article that I read in the April 2004 PMI Journal - MANAGING THE IMPACT OF CUSTOMER SUPPORT DISRUPTIONS ON NEW PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT PROJECTS by Robert C. Ash and Dwight E. Smith-Daniels(sorry it's a secure link, but PMI members can get to this) that studied the effects of switching between different work items / projects. Basically, the more you switch, the less you get done and the more time you need to re-familiarize yourself when you pick up where you left off. And the longer you are away the worse it gets. So, let’s face it multi-tasking is great but it has its limits. You can not expect to write 4 books at the same time if you switch after every letter. Maybe it would be better to write one book at a time, maybe 2. The problem is that today (my experience is with IT so I will use that as an example) the average programmer is supporting one or two production systems, has a few minor projects (“back burner”) and one or two major ones. That may be the perfect mix, but if it is, I haven’t seen any evidence of it. The more you switch (past a certain point) the more you loose. So our indecisiveness is expensive.

5. It takes longer to do many things at once than it takes to do many things sequentially (again within limits). Look at the book example. Have you ever decided to clean the kitchen and an hour later you’re in your bathroom picking up dirty clothes? The kitchen is still dirty, the bathroom is not much better, and you’re frustrated because you just can’t seem to make any progress?? Just like work. What would have happened had you just stayed in the kitchen?

So where do these fact lead us. The conclusion is that our current method of not deciding and trying to do everything at once is expensive and inefficient. Now here is my thought – you don’t need to prioritize, just do fewer things. You can try this two ways:
Actually prioritize projects – think “to do” lists. Lots of political work here, but ultimately you want people doing the work that is most beneficial to the company, so getting the whole portfolio thing up and running will be a boon, but it takes a while and it is very difficult. Which leads to my second alternative
Just make a list. As the PMO Director, just make a list of all the projects (if they are all equally important, then it doesn’t matter which is first – right). Publish the list and tell everyone that this is a list of projects in priority order and that if they are working on more than one of these projects, then they should give all their time to the highest until they have completed their work and move down the list. Of course that’s not going to work, but it will point out the need for consensus prioritization. No one will disagree that everyone should be “on the same page” or pulling the oars together, or whatever your teamwork slogan is.

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