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March 3, 2023

How to Manage Competing Priorities Like a Pro with this Guide

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In any project, it's common to have multiple priorities that need to be balanced and managed. It’s also common for everything  to feel important. Compounding the pressure, priorities can come from various  sources, such as team members, leadership, external organizations, and customers, each with their own needs. 

Managing these competing priorities well is essential to ensuring your project's success in achieving its goals. In this article, we'll explore some proven approaches along with expert tips for managing those project priorities like a pro.

First things first 

The first step in dealing with priorities competing for top spot is to to get your arms around your goals and objectives. These guideposts help you assess the various deliverables for the project. To do this, ensure that each of your features and tasks are linked to the goal they support. If you can’t link a task or deliverable to a goal or objective, you need to examine  whether your team should be working on it at all.

Once you know that all project work is linked to your goals, you can more clearly assess all the work vying for priority. 

Following  are a few specific techniques for how to do that.

Eisenhower Matrix

To deal with priorities that compete you are going to have to address the “tyranny of the urgent.” A prioritization tool like the Eisenhower matrix can help you determine which tasks are both urgent and important, and which can be delayed, delegated, or even eliminated.

The Eisenhower Matrix, also known as the Urgent-Important Matrix, is named after US President Dwight D. Eisenhower. While it is unclear whether Eisenhower actually created the matrix himself, it is attributed to him as he was known for his ability to manage his time effectively and prioritize his tasks. The matrix became popularized in the 1989 book "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" by Stephen Covey, who credited Eisenhower as the source of the matrix.

In essence, the Eisenhower Matrix is a simple method for prioritization. It can be an especially useful tool for project management as it allows you to focus on the project's most important tasks, deliverables, and issues.

Here's how you can use the matrix for project management prioritization:

  1. Create the matrix: The matrix consists of four quadrants, with urgency on the horizontal axis and importance on the vertical axis. Draw a square and divide it into four equal quadrants.
  2. Identify the items you are prioritizing: For example, list the tasks for your project, including those that are urgent and important, urgent but not important, important but not urgent, and neither urgent nor important.
  3. Categorize the tasks: Place each task in the appropriate quadrant of the matrix based on its urgency and importance.
manage competing priorities

  1. Prioritize the tasks: Focus on the items in the top-left quadrant first, as they are both urgent and important. These tasks require immediate attention and should be given the highest priority. The same process can be used for features, issues, projects - whatever requires prioritization.

This approach underscores the need to look at the important and not just the urgent. Why? As Eisenhower himself famously said, “What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.”

Now, what to do when you have multiple priorities that land in the urgent and important quadrant?

Stack ranking 

Stack ranking is a great approach to determine the most critical priorities. Also known as "forced ranking," stack ranking is a method of evaluation used to rank items  against one another. This method is used to identify the highest priority items and to allocate resources accordingly. Here’s what stack ranking can look like in the context of a SaaS project: 

  1. Identify the projects, features, or tasks that need to be prioritized: Start by making a list of what it is that needs to be completed. 

Separating your categories helps this process so that you compare bug fixes to bug fixes, for example, and not a bug fix to an initiative. In a given category, focus first on those  items that you have designated as both important and urgent. 

  1. Assign a priority to each item: Assign a priority level based on its importance and urgency. This could be a numerical ranking system (e.g., 1-5, with 1 being the highest priority) or a more descriptive system (e.g., "high," "medium," "low").
  1. Compare and rank the items: Compare each item against another, and rank them top to bottom in order of priority. This can be done by having relevant stakeholders and team members provide input on the priority of each item.

When managing competing priorities within a project, it is important to evaluate trade-offs. This is part of stack ranking,  involving making informed decisions based on the impact of each priority on the project's success. At the end of the day, you may have to make some trade-offs. Some items may have to be changed or fall off the initial to-do list in order to meet project deadlines or budget constraints, for example.

Stack ranking should be an ongoing process, as priorities can change over time.  

PERT Estimates

PERT (Program Evaluation and Review Technique) is a powerful tool for project management that is designed to help estimate the duration of a project and plan and coordinate its schedule. And it can also help when it comes to managing competing priorities.

The technique is based on the PERT method, and it involves creating three estimates for each task: 

  1. An optimistic estimate - the shortest amount of time it is believed the task will take.
  2. A most likely estimate - the most probable amount of time the task will take.
  3. A pessimistic estimate - the longest amount of time it is believed the task will take. 

The three estimates are then used to calculate a weighted average estimate for the task, using the following formula: (Optimistic + 4 x Most Likely + Pessimistic) / 6, where the calculated estimate is considered the most accurate estimate for the task.

PERT three-point estimation allows project managers to take into account the uncertainty inherent in project estimates and to plan and manage projects more effectively by having a better understanding of the potential duration of tasks.

Using PERT enables the identification of critical paths in a project. These are the sequences of tasks that have the greatest impact on the overall duration of the project. Identifying these critical paths helps leaders focus teams on the most important tasks and ensure they are completed on time.

PERT management also facilitates communication and coordination among team members by providing a clear representation of the project schedule. This information can focus team members  and generate  a productive discussion on project priorities. 

PERT can be used in conjunction with other project management methods, such as Gantt charts, to provide a comprehensive view of a project's schedule and progress. Combining PERT estimations with Gantt charts provides teams with a complete picture of the project and allows them to identify potential issues - and key priorities - early on.

Use Agile methodologies and tools

Agile methodologies can be particularly effective when managing competing project priorities. Agile is a flexible and iterative approach to project management that focuses on delivering value to the customer in small increments. This approach allows teams to quickly adapt to changing priorities and requirements, which is essential in a fast-paced project environment.

Jeff Sutherland, co-creator of Scrum and CEO of Scrum Inc., states "Agile methodologies are ideal for managing competing project priorities because they prioritize customer value and allow for rapid iteration and delivery." Sutherland recommends using a framework such as Scrum or Kanban to manage agile workflows and ensure that each project team is aligned with the project priorities.

In addition to using agile methodologies, it's also important to have a clear picture of the project and tasks at hand. This could include using a Kanban board to visualize project tasks and identify bottlenecks. When used in a cohesive project management tool, Gantt charts and stack-ranked backlog lists become particularly helpful visual cues.  Use of a modern  Project Management tool that supports Agile and priority management is key to enabling teams to manage competing priorities.

Collaborate and communicate with stakeholders

Collaboration with stakeholders is key to managing competing project priorities. Stakeholders include team members, project sponsors, customers, and external partners. By collaborating with stakeholders, you can gain a better understanding of their priorities and ensure that the project is aligned with their needs. 

Effective communication is, of course, crucial. How many times have you been on a project and found you are working on a priority that is…no longer a priority? Frustrating, right? Ongoing communication of priorities to all stakeholders keeps  everyone in the know. Practicing effective communication focuses everyone on the right tasks to keep the project on track.  

Create a schedule, including dependencies

Develop a detailed schedule that outlines the tasks to be completed and the time frame in which they should be finished. Identifying dependencies is crucial when managing competing priorities in a project. Dependencies are relationships between project tasks that require one task to be completed before another can begin. Gantt charts are a great way to track dependencies.

Allocate resources appropriately

Allocating resources appropriately is essential when managing competing project priorities. 

Once competing priorities are evaluated, allocate resources (such as time, budget, and team members) accordingly. This includes assigning team members to the highest priority tasks based on their skills and experience. 

Set realistic deadlines and manage expectations

Setting realistic deadlines is important when managing competing project priorities. Unrealistic deadlines can lead to burnout and low morale among team members. They can also create a false sense of urgency, causing a jockeying effect that incorrectly knocks other priorities off the radar.

Managing expectations helps level set everyone, keeping priorities clearer. If you communicate, for example, that a certain feature is going to delay the project by 6 months, that expectation can help stakeholders evaluate how important it truly is. By setting realistic expectations, you can avoid overcommitting and deliver on your promises instead.

Monitor progress, review, and reflect

But what about changing priorities? We all know priorities can change in a project environment, and it's important to be prepared to adjust priorities as needed. Use these approaches to help you position yourself for change:

  • Monitor progress in light of priorities. By monitoring progress, you can identify potential roadblocks and adjust priorities as needed. This includes tracking project metrics, such as budget, schedule, and quality. 
  • Re-evaluate priorities regularly, identifying new priorities as they arise, and adjusting ranking, project timelines, and resources accordingly. 

Finally, be intentional about reviewing project outcomes as a result of prioritization decisions. Did the project stay on track? Did the project deliver the most important features? How did prioritization efforts and communication impact product adoption? Reflecting on outcomes will focus and improve efforts in managing competing priorities in the future.

Managing competing priorities within a project requires careful evaluation, effective communication, and flexibility. By using key tools and techniques you can effectively manage competing priorities and deliver a successful project-like a pro.

DevStride can help

Project management tools can help track project work, goals and objectives, documentation, roadmaps, milestones, requirements, tasks, assignments, and more.

DevStride is a modern project and portfolio management tool purpose-built to promote collaboration, communication, and cohesion, reducing the stress factor and making managing projects - successful. A refreshingly easy-to-use tool, DevStride provides the robustness and insight project leaders need and support that teams love.

Here are just a few ways you can use DevStride to manage competing priorities:

Workstream mapping to strategic goals and objectives - ensures work is focused on the right projects and is aligned with goals.

Stack ranking - makes priorities clear, visual, and easy to manage.

PERT (Program Evaluation and Review Technique) and WIP limiter features - for sizing and controlling projects.

Dynamic roadmapping - provides a visual way to manage story and epics for release tracking.

Task and assignment tracking - tracks requirements, tasks, and assignments in an easy-to-use and responsive interface, including Kanban boards and Scrum sprint cycles.

Collaborative workspaces - promote communication through unified workspaces, breaking silos and promoting cohesion. Create and collaborate, keeping all your project documentation and activities up-to-date for everyone. 

Workflow automations - make use of customizable, event and criteria-based triggers to track priorities and changes, notify owners, promote task management, and stay informed.

Notifications - keep work moving, information available, relevant, and up-to-the second regarding changes, communications, and issue management.

Filters - provide real time visibility on all projects, teams, and portfolios, and data (like those pesky priorities!), organization-wide.

Visual indicators - displayed throughout the tool for easy information at-a-glance, including priorities, completion rates, and progress status.

Rich Analytics - deliver a powerful and effective way to monitor progress and identify and communicate potential issues before they become problems. Beyond raw data, DevStride provides teams and leaders with insights to make informed decisions.

Reach out today - we are here for you

If you need access to a modern project and portfolio management tool that can help you plan and control projects, then schedule an introductory call with us today. Our integrated work management platform provides teams with superior visibility and alignment. Understand the true state of the work, even as priorities shift. 

By using DevStride’s platform, you can gain a holistic view of your projects and initiatives, enabling you to deliver successful projects and improve the overall performance of your organization.

We’ll show you exactly how DevStride can help your teams manage exceptional project and product delivery. For projects big and small, DevStride is here for you!

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