The Path to Hell is Paved with Prioritized Project Lists

The Paradox of Project Prioritization

At the heart of project management lies a paradox: You are asked to allocate resources to ventures whose contours are unknown. This is the planning problem where organizations must make educated guesses about future projects. A simple project portfolio list is critical to helping you manage it. As long as it is worked with rigor in the spirit of the Risk Up Front principles of accountability, transparency, integrity, and commitment, it offers a structured approach to managing this uncertainty. However, the paradox persists: putting projects on a prioritized list can lead to an illusion of control and predictability, often paving the way to project purgatory.

The Problem with Prioritized Lists

Suppose you have resources to fund three projects but create a prioritized list with six projects and hope your organization will adequately allocate resources. In that case, you’re setting yourself up for problems. The most common situation is that the project with priority one gets resources because it’s the first priority. The problem is that people assume projects two and three are going to be successful when, in reality, resources are being distracted because someone is also trying to make progress on projects 5 and 6.

The most dangerous pitfall in project management is overcommitment. Organizations, seduced by their neatly prioritized lists, often take on more projects than they can handle, leading to a scenario where teams are stretched thin and projects suffer. The situation is even more perilous because resources are not universally interchangeable. There are often one or more critical resources for four projects on this prioritized list, but I only have time to participate in two. When you run out of that scarce resource, you must recognize that you can’t do the other two projects. Creative solutions to this will only get you so far. At some point, you want to be able to commit to that. Let’s finish projects one and two quickly to move on to projects 3 and 4.

Organizations are encouraged to draw a clear line in their project list, distinguishing between projects that will be resourced and those that won’t. This ‘line in the sand’ approach is crucial. Without it, resources may be frittered away on lower-priority projects, leaving high-priority projects under-resourced and at risk.

The Road to Redemption: Staying True to the Path

However, the very clarity of this spreadsheet can lead organizations into a false sense of security. The neatly prioritized list might create an illusion that all projects are under control, but it’s a treacherous path. The RUF Project Portfolio cautions against this, emphasizing the need for weekly reviews to ensure that priorities align with reality and resources.

  1. Transparency and Integrity: Ensure the spreadsheet accurately reflects the current state of projects and is shared transparently across the organization.
  2. Regular Review: Management must review the project portfolio to ensure active projects are adequately resourced and aligned with strategic priorities.
  3. Respect the Line: Understand your resource limitations and have the discipline to focus only on the projects above the line. Resist the temptation to start lower-priority projects prematurely.

Project lists are a powerful tool, not a panacea. It requires a disciplined approach to portfolio management, a clear understanding of your organization’s resource capabilities, the wisdom to know your priorities, and when to say no.