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How to Prioritize Work and Meet Project Deadlines

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Picture this.

You’re the project manager on a team of 50. You’re responsible for leading a complete overhaul. You’re responsible for revamping a client’s website, print and marketing collateral.

It’s a large project, you’ve been given a clear budget to work within.

94 million.

You’re working with other teams to make sure this project is a success. It’s a kingmaker. If it’s handled well, this project alone can fast track your promotion.

You’re smart.

You’d do everything in your power to ensure this project, your project, was a resounding success, right?

The team in our story was smart, too.

How to Prioritize Work and Meet Project Deadlines

But they failed horribly. Let me rephrase that, they crashed and burned. They started their project with high hopes, but things went off the rails, almost immediately.

Who am I talking about?

CGI Group, and a large amount of federal contractors. You know, the team behind HealthCare.gov.

Their project was a nightmare.

  • Consistent delivery delays
  • Repeated cost overruns
  • Scope creep
  • Design by committee

In fact, the HealthCare.gov redesign went so badly that the budget ballooned from 94 million to a whopping 1.7 billion – that’s right Billion with a B.

An analysis later found that the administration did not provide “effective planning or oversight practices,” which is code for one thing.

They failed.

But why? It’s not like they started the project with the intention of failing. There was a lot at stake here, careers, reputations, opportunities, money.

There’s a one word secret behind their failure

Priorities.

They failed to prioritize the details of their project. They weren’t able to separate and act on the details that mattered vs. the details that didn’t.

There were too many cooks in the kitchen.

Everyone wanted to have their say, influentials, power brokers, managers and leaders – everyone wanted to have their say on HealthCare.gov.

It’s no different with you.

If you’re a project manager or you’ve worked on a project that’s failed catastrophically, you know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s a common problem, isn’t it?

How do you prioritize a project?

How do you do it when there are so many conflicting goals and agendas at play? Is that even possible?

Prioritizing a project is inevitable

Projects are completed by people, that’s the obvious part that everyone knows. Here’s the part people working on projects don’t know or won’t accept:

Your projects will be prioritized.

Let me modify that a bit. Your projects will be prioritized with or without you by…

  • Micromanagers and overreaching executives The manager who continually changes his mind about the work that you’ve done. The executive who decides to add 3 weeks of work that’s due in 3 days.
  • By entitled clients who “know what’s best.” The very same clients who treat your team with subtle condescension, as though you’re the “help” or your beneath them.
  • Well meaning creative, marketing, legal co-workers The designer who insists on following the new design standards he saw on Smashing Magazine.
  • People with agendas. People looking to make a name for themselves. Using your project to grab attention and accolades for themselves.

Or, if you handle it well, your project will be prioritized by you. Only that’s not what happens. Unsuccessful projects are dominated by detractors, the people I mentioned earlier.
Your projects will be prioritized with or without you. Click To Tweet

All-star professionals don’t need to prioritize. Not true.

There’s this attitude with some professionals, the belief that prioritization is for amateurs and the inexperienced. “If you need to prioritize your projects you’re going about it all wrong.”

People argue about frameworks.

About methodology.

But they forget or ignore the why. The reasons they need to prioritize their projects.

Prioritizing decreases risk.

Glen Alleman, shared three common reasons projects get in trouble, whether it’s late, over budget or incomplete.

  1. We couldn’t know. You’re creating something new, solving a problem you haven’t experienced before or you’re working with something you don’t fully understand.
  2. We didn’t know. This includes areas where you should have known but didn’t. Didn’t want to find out or were unwilling to do the work. This excuse seems legitimate until you realize this fact. You wouldn’t knowingly hire someone who didn’t know what they were doing, so why accept it as an excuse?
  3. We don’t want to know. Proactively avoiding information because of the negative consequences it creates e.g. your project gets cancelled, losing money or time, dealing with layoffs, etc.

When you prioritize your projects properly, you’re making the decision to face the brutal facts.

Smart teams accept reality as it is instead of what it could be. They learn things they need to know, using that information to prioritize their projects. All-stars understand this intuitively.

What all-stars need to prioritize well

Prioritizing depends on a system. When it comes to prioritizing projects, which one is most effective?

The Eisenhower Priority Matrix

The priority matrix is used to differentiate between the urgent and important. It shows busy professionals like yourself how to manage their time and prioritize their projects.

This matrix helps teams to sort through a heavy workload quickly.

 

The Pareto Principle

In 1906, Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto was studying the unequal distribution of wealth in his country. He discovered that just 20 percent of causes contributed to 80 percent of the outcomes.

What’s surprising about this principle is the fact that it applies to a wide variety of industries and circumstances – including project management.

 

Pickle Jar Theory

The pickle jar theory is a time management framework that’s typically taught using a pickle jar. You fill an empty pickle jar with rocks or golf balls, until it looks full. Then you fill it with gravel. Finally, you add sand and water taking up the remaining space.

This analogy or framework uses a top-down approach, tackling the bigger and more important details in a project first.

 

Maslow’s Theory

Psychologist Abraham Maslow argued that human motivation stemmed from fulfillment and personal growth. He stressed the importance of matching or tying time management to the needs we have as human beings. He argued that efficient use of our time would lead to greater amounts of fulfillment, growth and well-being.

His research supported the hypothesis that motivation was driven by unmet or unfulfilled needs.

What’s the problem with these frameworks?

Each of these frameworks attempts to solve the prioritization problem but they’re all facets (or solutions) to the same problem.

  • Use the Eisenhower priority matrix and you’ll inevitably end up focusing on the 20 percent that produces 80 percent of your results.
  • Rely on the Pickle Jar Theory and you’ll discover you’re spending a disproportionate amount of time on the urgent and important details that matter most.
  • Adopting Maslow’s Theory to increase fulfillment, growth and motivation? You’ll begin to notice the 80/20 rule steer you towards goals, relationships and development.

These frameworks work well but they’re only a small part of the story. When you’re able to prioritize, you focus on the details that matter to you and your team. Details like…

  1. Purpose. why do you have the projects you do? It sounds cliché, but what is your organization here to do? Purpose is cliché when it serves the teams ego. Purpose is useful when it creates a standard teams can use to hold each other accountable.
  2. Desires. What does everyone want? What do you want? High-performing teams prioritize desires, giving the right people an appropriate amount of say with each project.
  3. Goals. what’s your ideal outcome? Working backwards, what steps do you need to take to achieve this goal? All-Star teams set big goals grounding them in reality. They work backwards from the outcome creating a clear plan they can follow.

That’s a problem. When it comes to priority frameworks, which one do you focus on? Which one gets your attention first?

It’s simple.

How to Prioritize Work and Meet Project DeadlinesYou focus on all of them. You treat each of these frameworks as facets on a diamond, parts of a whole. You focus your time and attention on the facets that best fit your situation.

  • Boss creating unnecessary project work? hold him accountable with his purpose, desires and goals.
  • Struggling to get timely feedback? Remind them about their purpose, desires and goals.
  • Need to make unpopular changes? Present your ideas using purpose, desires and goals as a conversation starter.

See what I did there?

Using the right framework means accepting the reality of your situation.

The Eisenhower priority matrix shows you how to prioritize, accept or reject incoming work. The pickle jar theory keeps your priorities in check; it keeps the majority of your time focused on the details that matter most. Keeping your time and attention fixed on the details that matters most keeps you in line with Maslow’s theory. This gives you the fulfillment and growth you need to be happy.

Frameworks are useful but they can’t prevent bad habits.

There’s a large segment of the population who believe they’re exceptional multitaskers. They’re quick to discuss these frameworks; it’s not uncommon to hear these people bragging about their ability to multitask.

But is that really the case?

You’re terrible at multitasking.

If you’re an exceptional multi-tasker you’re probably not too happy with me right now.

That’s because real multi-taskers actually exist.

These are the people who, without training or experience, are able to handle a completely foreign set of tasks. They can juggle multiple to-do’s at once. Even better, they’re able to do it without sacrificing quality or speed.

The research is actually pretty clear, if you’re multitasking you’re paying a heavy, heavy price.

You’re dealing with…

  • Poor filtering. Your ability to filter out irrelevant information has dropped considerably. You’re not catching the same amount of mistakes, you’re missing details, and you’re absorbing less.
  • Poor working memory it becomes harder to follow simple instructions, keep track of where you need to be or complete to-do items. Your work moves and starts and stops, dramatically increasing the amount of time you spend on each task.
  • Squirrel syndrome the inevitable pull towards distraction you feel when you’re right in the middle of work. Maybe it’s browsing on Facebook, reading your text messages or working on a low priority to-do
  • An inability to multitask. multitasking is doable with a considerable amount of training and practice. But it comes with an unhappy downside. Failure. Multitasking kills your ability to… well… multitask.

What does this mean for you? Multitasking makes everything worse. Decreases performance, increases cognitive load and fouls up your projects.

Just one problem. Prioritizing won’t work.

“When my boss or manager rushes in he’s usually in a panic. His boss has just added to his workload, scope creep is beginning to move down the chain. He doesn’t have a choice, do the work, make the change or pay the price.”

He’s doing what he has to do to stay afloat.

We get it.

And you know what? It sucks. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Getting decision-makers to define the purpose, desires and goals gives everyone clarity. It’s a checklist you can use to eliminate distractions and reduce dysfunction.

It works best when it comes from the top.

When decision-makers are involved projects are easy to prioritize. When things begin to go off track (as they inevitably will) you can find your way back – if you know where you’re going. These ingredients give you the tools you need to prioritize and win, if you know how to use them.

What if decision makers say no?

What if they go out of their way to avoid, evade or ignore your requests?

You pivot.

You educate your team and ask for help.
You get colleagues to rephrase your request.
You make your request completely about your decision makers.
You make yourself indispensable to the team.

You persist.

Want to successfully prioritize your projects?

Start at the beginning. Define your purpose, desires and goals – the business, project, and personal levels. It takes work, but it eliminates the inevitable frustration and pain that follows.

Then, you use your frameworks.

Treat them as parts of a whole. Choose the right tools for the job and you’ll find these frameworks work together.

Initially, Healthcare.gov crashed and burned. The good news is they were able to recover and it all started with their priorities. Your project doesn’t have to crash and burn. Prioritize your projects you’ll find…

Success becomes the norm.

Keep Learning: Get free project management tips and best practices (about once or twice a month) from the experts at Workzone.

Schedule Your Free Demo

Learn more about how Workzone can help your team manage its projects more effectively.

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7 Reasons Why Excel Doesn’t Work For Project Management

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