In a recent meeting with an executive of a software company, she talked about one of her company's biggest challenges as having too many projects going on at one time. Her staff argued that all were critical, but at any given time, most showed insufficient progress against deadlines. She described the company as being "very good at getting things 80% done!"
When this type of discussion only occurs at the leadership level, it can too often become simplified as, "too much to do and not enough time or people to do it". And, when it's framed in the context of the economy, it is easily perceived as an impossible problem that no one has the time or ability to address today. However, the questions being asked in the cafeteria among the workers who are frustrated by the results are How can they expect us to improve our results by working the same way with less people? Isn't that the definition of insanity? At the speed of change confronting organizations today, it is easy to lose sight of a less obvious issue; the lack of focus on the part of the company's leadership The Power of Focus is Critical!
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, 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:
- 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
These are the projects, then, that should be of highest importance and whose 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 in to 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.
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.