Prioritize Projects to Accelerate Productivity

GridlockWhat happens when we try to juggle too many projects? Gridlock.

Too many of us experience it on the freeway every day.

My car has a speedometer that reads 120 mph on the top end. That doesn’t really matter, if the cars on the freeway around me are traveling 15-25 miles per hour. Or if they stop completely. Why are we all moving in slow motion? Too much traffic for the highway. Congestion. Not enough capacity.

Working on too many projects has the same effect. Project resources get slowed down by over-commitment Here are some numbers that tell a familiar story.

  • A department with 40 projects;
  • Every project has a team of four to 10 people;
  • Every person is working on three or more projects; or
  • Every critical path item for every project team is being worked by someone who has at least two other priorities and is only devoting a fraction of his or her time to any project.

Now go ahead. Try to accelerate your project. Did it fall behind because a key team member was ill? Try to catch up.

If your project is high enough in priority, you can take the people and resources other projects want and you can actually speed past them all. Just like the state patrol when they speed past you with their flashing lights and sirens. So your project caught up and got ahead. What about all the others? Further behind?

Eric Verzuh figure 1

This graph shows a resource forecast across projects for a department. Looks like too many projects!

Prioritize Projects To Accelerate

I don’t decide how many cars are on the freeway today. Nobody does, really. But projects are different. We know who selects projects. In our hypothetical department projects are proposed, approved and staffed. If there are too many — if we’re congested — we actually have the power to reduce the number of projects and increase the speed of the remaining ones. The key is enterprise project management, a combination of project program and portfolio management.

Prioritizing your projects relies on five factors.

  • All projects are staffed and you do have project plans, which makes it possible to know how much work a person is assigned to accomplish in a particular week or month;
  • Project plans can be integrated to show all the assignments across projects for the people in the department;
  • The department has priorities that department leaders generally share. Projects can be related to these priorities;
  • All department leaders who initiate projects share a coordinated process for allocating people to projects; and
  • Accepting that overall we’ll get more accomplished on an annual basis with high productivity on fewer projects compared with low productivity on many projects. (If you don’t want to accept the theory that working faster on fewer projects at a time will ultimately result in higher achievement, you’ll need to track planned vs. actual results on projects using both the high congestion and the low congestion strategies.)

Among these five factors are four regularly recurring themes:

  • People with the skills to make the right decisions;
  • A consistent process that creates predictability and can be fine-tuned over time;
  • Information technology that provides the necessary data with a minimum of effort; and
  • Some person or group within the organization responsible for making this work.

As is often the case the processes and technology for prioritizing projects have already been developed. To benefit, the department has to take the industry standard practices and technology and adjust them to fit the department’s unique characteristics.

Eric Verzuh figure 2

Projects prioritized by department priorities. Selection line driven by department budget.

Microsoft Project Server and Project Online are designed for prioritizing projects and resource forecasting.

  • Portfolio modeling allows projects to be ranked by department priorities and cost — literally producing a “best bang for your buck” list;
  • Resource forecasting integrates Microsoft Project plans to show exactly how much work any person is assigned for any day, week or month, even when he or she is assigned too many projects. That also applies to related job categories such as engineer, technical writer or quality assurance specialist; and
  • Project Server uses automated workflows to add consistency to the project proposal and selection process.

Projects are not like freeways. We have control over the congestion. Prioritize to accelerate.

Image of gridlock made available courtesy of Magnus Manske under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license.

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Written by Eric Verzuh
Eric Verzuh, PMP, earned his PMP in 1992. He is the author of the bestselling Fast Forward MBA in Project Management and the PMP® Deep Dive, a better, faster, and more fun exam prep program. You can contact Eric via email at
1 Comment
  1. Oh my! That is exactly where I am right now. TOO many things to do and seemingly no way to prioritize due to circumstances beyond my control. This is not a good place to be when the others on the project’s cannot see it!

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