Selecting and Prioritizing Business Projects

First off, this post is not about how to manage your business projects but is instead about how to decide what to embark on in the first place. If you’re a technology leader like myself you know all-to-well that technology is often called upon to formulate and then implement large portions of the product roadmap. It can often be overwhelming to sort through.

Business Stakeholders and the Voices

In any organization there are multiple stakeholders: those with a vested interest in the success of the business. Each of these stakeholders come to the table with their view of what ingredients are needed to ensure that success, and those views are often translated into some type of project and desired outcome.

How do stakeholders form their opinions and develop their views? By listening to the voices and finding themselves in agreement to what the voices are saying. Let’s take a look at the voices.

  • the voice of the market
  • the voice of the customer
  • the voice of business operations
  • the voice of technology
  • the voice of regulation

The voice of the market. In what direction is the overall market headed? For example, if you were in the business of home monitoring solutions in the 2010s, did you see the emerging market of low-cost remote camera systems such as Blink? If so, were the market trends incorporated into your business roadmap?

The voice of the customer. What are your existing customers asking for? Often their asks will overlap with the overall market, but not always. Do you give a lot of time and attention to smaller customers since in aggregate they make up the long tail. The old adage a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush may come into play here as you decide how to prioritize projects.

The voice of the business operations. Sales, marketing, account management, human resources, finance; all of these are components of a mature company and each of them will bring to the table a list of projects that address business needs. Sales and marketing may be in need of a CRM platform; account management is looking for ways to maximize client retention; finance is best served when it has a modern accounting package and streamlined revenue collection methods. All of these are areas where technology can be leveraged to drive productivity and thereby increase gross margins.

The voice of technology. Yes, technology has its own voice as well! If you’re a technology leader today you’re probably accustomed to the need of “paying down technical debt” or migrating from one software development stack to another. Perhaps the authentication mechanism you’ve been using for years is no longer appropriate or you’ve outgrown the database technology you started with. All of these are examples of projects that require resources but with the desire to, like other business units, offer productivity and reliability.

The voice of regulation. Ah yes, the voice of regulation, or as I like to call it, the voice of avoiding heavy fines or going to jail. If you’re in a heavily-regulated environment such as banking or healthcare or are subject to the GDPR it can take a lot of an ongoing effort to ensure compliance with the myriad regulations. Whether it is deploying multi-factor authentication across all of your applications or achieving certifications such as ISO 27001 or HITRUST, the stakeholders that are listening to the voice of regulation value projects that steer the business clear of legal calamities.

How to Select and Prioritize Projects

I like to make the distinction between selecting which projects to work on versus prioritizing existing projects. We’ve all been in situations where “every project is top priority” (my “favorite” phrase is “priority zero” to imply its even more important than top priority) and I’m certainly guilty of pressing on my teams to try to accomplish multiple Herculean efforts at a time.

To be clear there are a lot of methods of how to select projects to invest in, but a good method will always involve clearly articulating the goal of the project, its value, and to whom. From there it is key to plot the project on a prioritization matrix that has as its axes effort/cost and value. A common prioritization matrix from Stagen categorizes projects based upon which quadrant they fall into.

For example, consider the following projects:

  • Refactoring existing web application logging for consumption in Elasticsearch
  • Implementing customer alert tracing for operations support
  • Developing a next-generation prototype of a 5G-based wildfire tracking device
  • Migrating an existing SharePoint to Office 365

Ask yourself the following questions for each project:

  • Who (or which business units) are requesting or championing the project?
  • What is the defined outcome of the project?
  • What is the value of the project to the business or interested parties?
  • What is the overall effort required for the project?

Let’s dig into some details.

Value is in the Eye of the Beholder

Remember that your stakeholders are listening to a myriad of voices, and that their value statements about projects are based in large part on what they are hearing. In other words, just like beauty, value is in the eye of the beholder. Keep that in mind when assessing the value of a project.

Migrating your SharePoint installation to Office 365 may not be at the top of the CEO’s priorities, but I guarantee you that the marketing department will be excited. They’ve been working with the on-prem version since 2013 and IT can’t keep up with the demands being placed on the installation. Even IT is saying we need to migrate this to the cloud. To those business units this might be a “high-value” project.

You’re in the business of tracking wildfires and 2020 has kept you on your toes. Leveraging LoRA’s low-power and low-bandwidth requirements your device is a market leader but is going to begin to face competition from 5G-ready devices. To maintain your edge the product owner and sales team are advocating investing in a next-generation device, and armed with customer testimonials and tradeshow intel they claim this project is critical to the future success of the business.

Most technology companies run some type of operations support team tasked with monitoring the technology platform and in many cases serving as tier one or tier two customer support. Support operations run more efficiently and have greater impact when they are equipped with tools that provide visibility into the technology.

And finally, the technology team has been needing to peel off a developer or two and refactor the existing code base to leverage the latest logging techniques for unified log search capabilities in an Elasticsearch and Kibana platform. To them this a very valuable capability that will enable them to quickly troubleshoot and diagnose issues, find areas for improving performance, and so on. The compliance team might also champion such an effort to meet that audit requirement for maintaining a centralized logging environment.

As you can see, each of these projects may be considered “high value” to those that are requesting it. I’ve rarely come across individuals that propose projects that aren’t, in some sense, worth doing. The goal in assigning value for the purposes of selecting and prioritizing is to take a step back and add some level of normalization.

Effort is Subjective

Like value, effort is also subjective and may depend on who is doing the effort. What I like to do is think of effort as a product of both the number of individuals required to accomplish the project along with the fixed and ongoing costs associated with it. Let’s take the example of migrating SharePoint. At first glance it may seem like it would take only IT, but in reality it could also include training time and expenses to bring the overall organization up-to-speed on the new capabilities or differences from the older version.

Or take the next-generation prototype of our wildfire tracking device. Even prototypes can take up a considerable amount of time depending upon where you start. Will the prototype require a new printed circuit board? Are you deciding to include a new type of microcontroller? How much new code will be required vs. porting over an existing codebase for the firmware? If you pose the effort question to different people you could get answers ranging from high to low depending upon what they are mentally including in their assessment.

Putting it All Together

Now that you’ve listed out all your projects and written clear and concise justifications for them, it is time to plot them on the prioritization matrix and select which ones to put resources against. We’re going to stick with our project examples and imagine that we’ve gone through the exercise to come up with the following.

ProjectValueEffort
SharePoint Migration to Office 365MediumMedium
Customer Alert TracingMediumLow
Next Generation PrototypeHighHigh
Centralized LoggingMediumHigh

2×2 Prioritization

The prioritization matrix presented here sorts projects into five basic categories:

  • Selectively Invest
  • Do First
  • Work In
  • Delay
  • Ignore

Let’s review each.

Selectively Invest

High value and high effort projects are those you invest in. The use of the word invest here is quite deliberate: devote (one’s time, effort, or energy) to a particular undertaking with the expectation of a worthwhile result. Think about that for a moment. Time and energy for an organization are both limited and finite – that is, you only have so much of either. Investing is to take one’s time and energy and direct it at a given project is done so with the expectation that the result will pay off.

Do First

Most would agree that eating every day is high value (some might say necessary if you want to continue your existence on this rock) and relatively easy to do. The Do First quadrant is all about taking advantage of the fact that some things take little effort but yield a much higher rate of return. You might call these the proverbial low-hanging fruit. In the overall context of selecting endeavors for the business to provide resources for, Do First projects have a moderate-to-high value and take low-to-medium effort to accomplish. Get them knocked out.

Work In

I like to call this the “time permitting” category. Do you have some spare cycles? I know, most technology organizations would say no! Day in and day out there are demands placed on IT that sometimes seem to outstrip their capacity to get things accomplished. Even still there are always periods of time where the larger projects are entering their completion phase and resources become freed up, but not enough resources to start that next boulder. Take advantage of this time to “work in” some of those projects that you haven’t been able to start on.

Delay and Ignore

To delay something means to postpone or defer action. These projects have value but the effort required may outweigh it, or perhaps the value won’t be fully realized until several market cycles in the future. Don’t spend resources and energy on them now and kick the proverbial can.

Projects to ignore are those that have little value (either to the overall organization or in general) and require a significant amount of effort. It’s important to recognize again that most people don’t propose activities that, in their view, are of limited value and when proposed may not realize they require a lot of effort. When discussing the application of effort and value ratings to projects, it’s important to keep in mind once again that they can be subjective.

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