Prioritising your business, weighing cows and learning from mistakes

Part one of the Digital Delivery Guide, a series focused on helping businesses understand the methods and practices that lead to successful technology delivery.

Prioritisation is a concept most people are familiar with, but its deeper purpose in running a successful business is often underappreciated. In this article, I hope to shed light on how to wield this powerful tool and keep your business mooving in the right direction. Please excuse the terrible cow pun; it will make sense later on. 😉

Appreciating the craft

The main thing to appreciate about prioritisation is that it’s pretty hard to do well. The concept is simple, but its application within a fast-paced business environment is challenging. The process can also change depending on the context. For example, the methods used to prioritise your five-year business roadmap can be quite different from how you prioritise your week; just don’t assume that either task is easy.

One could even argue that creating a business strategy is essentially a form of prioritisation. A cyclical process of identifying what’s important, what’s not and where dependencies exist. This means you could probably teach a smart enough computer to do it, but that’s not what we are here to discuss.

This article focuses on project prioritisation, also known as program prioritisation. Essentially, the process of evaluating the big pieces of work your business wants to complete over a year or more and deciding which is number 1, 2, 3 and so on.

Prioritisation lifecycle

Prioritisation-Lifecycle-1000x466 Click the image to open a new tab.

A mature prioritisation process has several phases and should act as a feedback loop, continuously improving and enabling better decision-making. It can provide the framework for your business’s operations and evolves if done correctly.

So what’s the point?

It’s a fair question, and I can see why some people might throw caution to the wind and get on with delivering things based on intuition, ‘too much talking and not enough doing’, as a friend of mine once quipped.

I agree that ‘too much talking’ is another common pitiful of the business world, but when it comes to prioritisation, it pays to take the time to get it right, as fixing mistakes can range from difficult to almost impossible. I’m a firm believer in the saying an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

zombie project • noun A lifeless and meritless project, stumbling along in perpetuity, consuming all it encounters.

For example, have you ever been part of a project falling apart mid-flight, destined to be an abysmal failure on every useful metric? Yet, everyone carries on in denial because the perceived impact of stopping is just too scary. Most of us have, and that zombie project likely resulted from a lousy prioritisation process. A little upfront analysis can be revealing.

It’s also likely the sunk cost fallacy played a role in creating your zombie project. This theory of human behaviour is outside this article’s scope but check out the video below for a short introduction.

Estimate, estimate, estimate…

The 3x rule of project estimation No matter how confident you are in the initial estimate of a project, you are off by a factor of 3 or more.

I’ll keep this short, but a critical part of good prioritisation is a good estimation.

It’s almost impossible to prioritise well without accurate estimates for the projects you are evaluating. I’ve seen many zombie projects created by poor or non-existent estimation, which can set a business back years in its development.

For example, what if a distant animal you thought was a cow was something much heavier? What if it’s an elephant wearing a cow suit, and you aren’t close enough to tell; have you weighed the cow to be sure or are you just guessing and hoping everything works out?

Guessing things from a distance can land you in trouble, so take the time to estimate each project carefully and check for hidden zips.

Right, okay, but what’s the point!?

Sorry, went on a bit of a tangent there. Thanks for sticking with me!

The primary goal of good prioritisation is to ensure your business resources are focused on the right projects at the right time. Satisfying these two conditions will give your business the best chance of maximising its return on investment.

And at its highest level, prioritisation is the framework that surrounds and supports all the activities across your business. It helps you decide the first, second or third most important items and tells you what to stop when resources are stretched.

ad-delivery-guide-2-1000x429 Too many elephant-sized projects are never a good thing.

However, making good priority calls and knowing when to sacrifice something for the greater good requires more than just a numbered list. You must have your finger on the pulse of your business and respond to problems quickly. Failing to do so will likely result in a zombie project!

The trick is to pay attention to the warning signs as soon as they appear. The first warnings usually come from the people working directly on your projects. If they tell you there are problems with the delivery, you need to listen, investigate, and respond. The people working on your projects are typically best placed to evaluate how they are going, so ignore them at your peril.

Making the right call

This is the hard part; making the best priority call for your business and its situation. A solid prioritisation framework and careful estimation will provide some guide rails, but there are many internal and external factors to consider when making a final decision. The below resources will help with the process of prioritising your projects.

Things to consider when making a priority call:

What to ask:Some notes:
RiskWhat are the risks to your business if the project fails to meet its goals?High-risk projects are usually expensive and can severely damage a business if they fail. Approach them with extreme caution.
ReturnDoes the projected return justify the risk?Most projects don’t hit their projected targets, and most fall well short, at least initially, so don’t bet the house it.
EffortIs the effort required justified based on the risks and returns?I hope you weighed that cow before answering this. 😉
CapacityDoes your business have the capacity to run the project?Overestimating capacity is one of the most common mistakes businesses make.
TimingIs this the right time for the project?You can tick every other box and still be wrong here. Timing is everything, and many businesses have fallen because it was too soon or too late for the idea.
StrategyIs the project in line with the overall business strategy?Sometimes, you may need to go off the strategy to make some quick cash but be careful not to be distracted for too long.

Business idea value map

Below is a tool I created to determine the value of different business ideas and compare them against each other. It’s a good thought experiment, if nothing else, and I recommend adapting it to your business needs.

Business-Idea-Value-Map-1000x690 Click the image to open a new tab.

How to use the value map:

  • Estimate each project’s effort in business days
  • Assign a benefit level to each project using the provided definitions
  • Place each project on the map based on its effort and benefit level

Placing all your projects on the map allows you to quickly compare them and assess which has the best cost/benefit ratio.

Final words

By this point, you should have a broad understanding of prioritisation’s role in running a business and why it’s critical to get it right. Assuming your business model is sound, it can be the deciding factor between smashing targets or going broke.

A business will inevitably make bad priority decisions sometimes and frequently for start-ups. What matters is that when things go wrong, some time is taken to reflect on the processes and inputs that led to the decision. Whether it be poor estimation or an overly optimistic benefit assessment, the business must respond with changes to how decisions are made to stop history from repeating itself.

We touched on some related themes in this article, such as project estimation, idea evaluation and strategy alignment. These topics deserve a deep dive and will be discussed in future articles.