One aspect of project prioritization that gets lost is that the element of time is strategic and not just a tactical part of getting a project done. Speed of execution is really the end game and tracking time against estimated milestone events is how you keep score. The ability to measure and manage time is critical to converting strategy to results within the established timeframes set forth by management. Without focus on the end game you continue to have increased costs on projects and stakeholder schedule expectations not being met.
I call this focus ‘strategic focus.’ Strategic focus means assembling a set of projects (portfolio) that are resourced properly that point your company in the direction of sustainable competitive advantage in your space. The goal is to get there before your competitors do. The biggest factor in getting there is time and it’s the one thing you can not change because time waits for no one. So the only way to beat time is to ensure your precious resources time is well managed and measured. I’m not talking about tracking daily time but rather tracking whether or not key milestone dates are hit based on original estimates. If you don’t track time, you don’t know if your estimates are right. Through the course of a project team members will get better at estimating based on completion of previous assignments. It’s a consistent lessons learned process that helps reduce project cycle time and helps recover time lost due to unforeseen events and business complexity which are some reasons why deadlines are missed.
However the biggest reason that deadlines are missed is because organizations lose strategic focus by avoiding project prioritization. Executives push more projects into the active portfolio that take time away from an original set of projects and timelines creating conflicts between projects.
In order to meet goals every organization launches multiple projects during a fiscal year with key resources often assigned multiple projects at the same time. Quite often those key resources have day-to-day responsibilities that impact the time they can allocate to projects.
Consider for example Company X with about 2000 employees spread across about a dozen or so business units. In the current fiscal year there are 15 projects vital to the enterprise and these 15 projects involve multiple business units. Of course all projects need to be completed in the fiscal year in order for each business unit and the overall organization to meet its goal of achieving and sustaining a competitive advantage.
Each business unit is expected to contribute work force to the effort. Each business unit participating within these ‘enterprise’ projects has limited staff. As a result resources are asked to do more with less and must work on multiple projects during the year.
I’m not advocating that people can not work on more than one project at a time however once we have folks working on more than 3-4 projects at a time we begin losing the battle against time. When that happens it means we have taken our eyes off the end game. We lose strategic focus.
If you have worked on a project team, you know that new projects pumped into the pipeline bring about unplanned activity. This causes a well thought out project plan to quickly fall apart when project managers are forced to compete with other project managers over critical resources and lose the relay runner work ethic on their project. The impact is immediate to time and the time left to complete their project within originally established timelines dwindles.
Assume you are one of the organization’s project managers responsible for one of the 15 major projects necessary to meet company goals. Your project involves significant participation from 5 business units. You feel lucky because your project team has been staffed with ‘A’ game players, some of the best in the company. Your biggest challenge is that this staff is also working on other concurrent projects. However you have negotiated with the executive sponsor that time is the most important element for your project contrasted to quality and cost. Your team of ‘A’ game players have estimated that based on their current workload, both concurrent projects and day-to-day responsibilities, they can achieve the timelines established for your project and are excited and enthused about the opportunity to deliver this needed change to the organization.
One month into the project you find that the assigned project tasks are slipping in three of the five business units. You determine that this is due to project resources being pulled into new projects (unplanned activities) delegated to them by management. This new work is given higher priority than your project work however your timelines can not change.
How do you lead? As change agents project managers can’t control the things that happen to them, but they can control the way they react. It’s time to chat with your executive sponsor about strategic focus.