10 tips for successful prioritisation

In the past 18 months, many organisations have had to significantly reduce their spend on change, or deal with lower levels of capacity to deliver their change and transformation ambitions. This has meant they've had to make decisions on which projects to stop or defer, and which to progress.

Based on what we’ve seen in the market, many organisations have struggled to prioritise change programmes and projects in a way that yields a deliverable transformation portfolio. From our data, these are the top 10 factors that make the difference between success and failure.

1. Establish the appropriate decision criteria

Traditional criteria for deciding what moves ahead – such strategic alignment, financial or ‘who shouts the loudest’ – does not adequately account for today’s transformation complexities, can prejudice against many critical enabling projects, or may cause significant adverse disruption within the organisation. Instead, such things as customer need, compliance, project complexity, do-ability, dependencies and overall risk exposure must also be considered.

2. Focus intensely on do-ability

Too much emphasis is placed on strategic planning and not enough on do-ability, which includes the capability and capacity within the organisation, technology providers or other third-parties. In many cases the do-ability factors will be the predominant tie-breaker in the whole prioritisation process, as there is really no point in agreeing a prioritised list that is known not to be do-able.

3. Don’t underestimate the strain

There are increasingly capacity issues within organisations, which need to ‘keep the show on the road’ whilst meeting multiple projects demands and integrating new, complex technology into day-to-day operations. This is rapidly becoming the area constraining the amount of possible change, and the strain on the organisation must be carefully considered. In one organisation a senior manager not only had to keep the lights on in a key business area, address a number of operational hot spots, but also be the key player in five critical projects. Not only did all of the pieces struggle to get an appropriate level of attention to succeed, the person involved became seriously unwell.

4. Be relevant, not precise

Many organisations spend an inordinate amount of time striving for accuracy, which not only wastes time and effort but can increase delivery risk through procrastination. Prioritisation needs to instead focus on the relative benefits of each initiative, with leaders comfortable making decisions on ‘good enough’ information. At the end of the day prioritisation is about leadership and teamwork, not about process and data.

5. Go for a ‘buckets’ approach…and then get going

To get the process started swiftly, first assign potential initiatives into one of three buckets: ‘no brainers’, ‘no go’, and ‘best endeavours’. You can then reconfirm the ‘no brainers’ and start mobilising them, whilst agreeing the ‘no go’ projects and communicate them as such. ‘Best endeavours’ should then be evaluated to see if they can be moved to one of the other buckets and, if not, agree the conditions that will dictate when they should be mobilised.

6. Invest time in structuring the portfolio

Organisations often do not spend sufficient time considering how best to group and structure projects and programmes, often because of pressure to ‘get on with it’ after a protracted decision-making process. But carefully structuring the change portfolio – for example, grouping projects to deliver common outcomes or reducing the amount of project interdependencies – can actually reduce resource demands by up to 30%, providing capacity to do even more!

7. Agree what good enough design looks like at the outset

Too many projects focus on getting the requirements and delivering the solution at the expense of truly understanding the targeted outcomes, shelf life and the level of acceptable residual operational risk. This invariably leads to an over-designed solution and wasted money, as well as debate around whether it’s ‘good enough’.

8. Reduce the level of technology customisation

The speed of technology innovation and changing operating models means that the ‘shelf life’ of technology solutions is reducing. Organisations should reduce the amount of technology customisation and instead change the operating processes to make ‘plug and play’ solutions work. This not only will make technology cheaper, delivery simpler, and change easier to effect in the future, but also make prioritisation an easier decision-making process.

9. Regularly monitor for progress and relevance

With relentless pressure for efficiency, ensuring that the prioritised portfolio remains relevant is critical as is clarity around how it is delivering against the original decision criteria. A half-yearly formal review is the absolute minimum to be effective. We would recommend quarterly.

10. Ensure consequences for not playing by the rules

The prioritised list needs to be communicated to all so no one can say ‘I didn’t know’. At the same time it needs to be clear that there will be consequences for not playing by the rules, trying to circumvent the priorities, or trying to find ways to sneak pet projects or technologies into the mix.

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