An executive recently lamented that she and her company had far too many projects going on. All of them were important, she said, but insufficient progress was being made on most. In fact, she described her company as being “very good at getting things 80% done!” “Why can’t we ever complete anything?” she asked me.
This isn’t the first time that I have heard a business owner or leader talk about this struggle. Often the situation gets oversimplified as “too much to do and not enough time or people to do it”, which seems like an impossible problem to address…so many times it is merely ignored. Frequently, however, this problem is the result of a less obvious issue: a lack of focus by the company’s leaders.
The Power of Focus
A wise person once said that if you chase two rabbits, both will escape. The same holds true in business as many companies have too many items on their ‘To Do’ list. This lack of prioritization and focus leads to poor results. According to a Pricewaterhouse Coopers survey of 200 companies in 30 countries, only 2.5% of these companies had 100% of their projects come in on time, within budget, to scope, and delivering the right business benefits. This study demonstrates that 97.5% of the time we get it wrong in some way… and prioritizing can help. Just as focus and concentration allow your mind to function more effectively, prioritization allows businesses to achieve greater results.
Prioritizing can seem especially difficult when all projects seem important. But this is precisely when it can yield the best results. An oft-missing element in prioritizing is a process in which employees have confidence; one by which initiatives can be compared to determine their relative importance to the business. A fairly simple process is to plot each initiative on the following 4-quadrant chart:
- Initiatives landing in the upper left (high benefit, low cost) are “winners”…do it now.
- Initiatives landing in the lower right (low benefit, high cost) are “losers”…dump it
- Initiatives landing in the upper right (high benefit, high cost) need or require a return on investment (ROI) analysis to determine if and when to move forward
- Initiatives landing in the lower left (low benefit, low cost) are prioritized based on “gut feel”
Another fairly simple and more measurable process is to:
- Identify the key criteria to be used for judging each project (6 to 10 criteria may be an appropriate number)
- Weight each criterion based on its level of impact on key business goals
- Evaluate and score each project against those (same) key criteria
- Compare the scores of the projects to one another
- Select the highest-scoring projects
Doing both processes in an executive management team (perhaps the Prioritization Quadrant silently and the Measurable Process as an interactive exercise) can bring out everyone’s ideas and help form consensus on moving forward. The selected projects then will be of highest importance and will have the muscle of management focus. Their advancement and completion should have the greatest positive impact on the business.
To get the best results from prioritizing, strong leadership is required to ensure that:
- All projects are included in the evaluation and that there are no “sacred cows.”
- Personalities, politics and quests for power are not allowed to influence the process.
- The negative effects of existing paradigms and “busy as usual” are minimized.
- Employees are inspired to participate, buy into the importance of this work, and trust the process to provide valid outcomes.
- The outcomes are followed through on and resources are properly allocated to the “critical few” most important projects.
- Prioritization is not viewed as a “one and done” activity. It needs to be part of the business’ standard operating process and performed on a regular basis.
Difficult challenges and decisions will be faced during this process, especially if focus and prioritizing are not core competencies. Elbert Hubbard said that “It does not take much strength to do things, but it requires a great deal of strength to decide what to do.” One way that leaders can help achieve greater results is by having and instilling the discipline to focus on a few, critical projects instead of trying to do everything all at once.