7 Easy Steps to Prioritize Projects

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For all that your project management software can do for you, it still requires your input to know what to prioritize. Your PM software can only account for variables such as your resource pool, internal politics, organizational inefficiency, and shifting priorities if you set the parameters and importance of those elements or others. 

Meanwhile, your projects keep piling up and you’re still expected to deliver on time and under budget. What you need is a system for prioritizing your projects. This way, you can keep stakeholders happy by delivering quality work on time and keep yourself sane through an organized approach. We’ve created this guide to help you convert your pile of work into a digestible list of projects and priorities. 

Step 1 – List All Your Projects 

Start with the obvious: list everything you have to do that’s currently on your plate. This means pulling all your work items and project requests from different sources like your email inbox, Slack messages, project management software platforms, personal notes, and recommendations from bosses and colleagues. 

Check all your sources and create a master list of all projects. Use a medium you’re comfortable with at first, whether that’s a note-taking app, a spreadsheet, or just good old pen and paper. 

You might want to exclude some things from your prioritization list, like mandatory projects for compliance or legal regulations (making them inherently one of the most important things to do) or routine tasks that will never supplant other projects in terms of priority. You don’t need to score these projects during this process–just plug them into the final list when you’re done, starting with the most objectively important one. 

Step 2 – Determine Criteria for Priority

With your master list in place, you now need to set a rubric for how to measure and compare the importance of each project to one another. While many organizations focus on financial benefits such as cost-cutting and return on investment (ROI), not all reasons for urgency are quantitative like that. 

For example, projects that produce qualitative benefits such as customer satisfaction and strategic alignment are equally important and often overlooked when taking a strictly financial view of the project value. 

Let’s break down the different types of criteria you can apply to assign importance to your list of projects:

Financial: Consider the costs and financial rewards for completing projects and project elements. The main idea is to attach a cost to each project, allowing you to determine whether you have the budget to handle them simultaneously or at all. You can also tie revenue to the completion of projects and scope priority based on the greatest reward. 

Strategic: These can be less tangible than financial criteria or just benefits that are hard to tie directly to expenditure or profit. These may include market research, process development, or resource management. While time can often be reduced to a financial criteria (often in terms of paid or billable hours), sometimes it may be a better metric for strategic considerations, such as building out your business processes in terms of what can get done fastest or what has to be done for other items to be completed.

Risk: It’s important to appropriately prioritize projects in alignment with your company’s appetite for risk. Risk factors can also act as tiebreakers for projects with identical scores, with the less risky option getting the higher priority. Similarly, high risk or a multitude of risk factors can lower the priority of an otherwise high-value project. 

It is important to involve stakeholders when determining your criteria, whether that entails department heads, executives, and project management offices or business analysts, clients, and subject matter experts. 

Ask your team to brainstorm ideas for criteria to measure your projects against. Start with the three categories above and drill down into the unique considerations of your business to find meaningful criteria. 

We recommend no more than nine criteria be used, but most organizations will benefit from keeping this to around four or five. There are also many data sources to help you identify the appropriate criteria for scoring your projects, such as: 

  • Previous project goals, objectives, and success rates
  • Current project statuses
  • Accepted or unaccepted deliverables
  • User or client requirements
  • Instances of scope creep in past projects

Once you have four or more criteria your team and stakeholders all agree upon, you’ll need to start establishing how you’ll use them to score projects.

Step 3 – Assign Weight to Your Criteria 

You’ll notice an obvious problem looking at your criteria list. You can’t immediately tell which criteria are more important than the others. Therefore, you’ll need to rank your criteria in order of importance, giving the more important ones more weight in project scoring. 

The best practice is to weigh criteria as a percentage of the whole, with the most important getting the biggest chunk of the pie, the second-most getting a smaller percentage, and so on. 

It sounds simple, but it can be a problematic step if it’s not handled correctly. For example, the finance and marketing departments might have conflicting ideas about the importance of cost savings versus customer impact. 

While there are multiple ways to weigh criteria, the Analytical Hierarchy Process (AHP) is a popular decision-making framework commonly used in project prioritization and selection. Besides being an objective framework, the AHP also structures collaboration between stakeholders. 

Using pairwise comparisons, stakeholders compare criteria side-by-side under AHP.  The main idea is to compare every possible combination of criteria in pairs. The pairwise model requires you to compare each criterion head-to-head. For example, you’ll compare Criteria A to Criteria B, Criteria A to Criteria C, and so on until you’ve compared every possible combination. 

You can use a free pairwise comparison tool to make this easier when going over criteria importance with your team or stakeholders. Picked Shares has a handy browser tool that quickly displays every criterion combination with a slider in between them, so you can run through head-to-head comparisons in an easy, visual manner. 

Pickled Shares comparison tool that displays criterion comparison with a slider in between them

Once you’ve set all the sliders, the comparison tool will generate a weight for each criterion.

Weighted criterion rankings generated from Pickled Shares' comparison tool

If you can’t go over these together as a group on a conference or video call, you can have everyone individually complete their own pairwise analysis of the same criteria, then average the weights out across everyone’s scores and votes.  

Step 4 – Review and Validate

This step is critical, especially when collaborating with team members. The team must agree on the criteria’s weights to avoid problems later. Remember that this scoring model is a guideline rather than an objective tool for prioritizing projects. 

Therefore, discuss why each person assigned a specific weight to each criterion. This way, you can create a shared understanding of everyone’s assignment of value and benefit. You may need to adjust your scores based on the team’s consensus. 

In case of a deadlock, simply average the weight of all team members to develop a score. This option is perfect for reducing tension and ensuring that everyone is accommodated. 

Last, check your scores for consistency. The total sum of all the weight criteria should be 100%. This step ensures the scoring is accurate and consistently applied in the following steps. 

Step 5 – Score Your Projects Based on the Weighted Criteria

You now have a list of projects and weighted criteria to compare against the projects. This step requires you to assign a numerical score to each project based on how well it aligns with each criterion. Again, it’s worth involving stakeholders in the process. 

Here, the main challenge is developing a scale that clearly distinguishes project evaluations. A good option is a 0-9 point scale. This way, you can see a number and instantly understand the item or project’s relative urgency and importance. For example: 

  • 0-3 Points = Low
  • 4-5 Points = Moderate 
  • 6-9 Points = High 

It’s a good idea to create a spreadsheet with each criterion and its corresponding weight in the top column and all projects in the left-hand row. Then, assign a score for how well the first project aligns with each criterion. Repeat the process for all projects. 

Smartsheets provides a free Excel spreadsheet template that works well for these purposes. Using the 0-9 point scale, rate how well each project matches each criterion. You’ll save the final total score for each project for the next step. 

Smartsheets Excel weighted decision matrix with a list of projects and criterion scores

Step 6 – Calculate the Total Scores 

Here’s where the math comes in. Fortunately, you can build formulas in your spreadsheet to calculate these after you understand how to crunch the numbers.

The formula for calculating the total score for each project is simple enough. Multiply the project’s score for each criterion by its associated weight, then add all the weighted values to arrive at the final project score. 

A completed row from Smartsheets weighted decision matrix

Following our example from just above, here’s how the formula breaks down:

  • Criteria 1: 2 x 30  = 60
  • Criteria 2: 4 x 25 = 100
  • Criteria 3: 3 x 20 = 60
  • Criteria 4: 5 x 15 = 75
  • Criteria 5: 9 x 10 = 90 

Adding up the five totals gives an overall score of 385.  

  • 60 + 100 + 60 + 75 + 90 = 385

That number won’t mean much on its own, but it will be easy to compare it to the total scores for your other projects.

Once you have all of your projects scored and all of the score totals, sort your spreadsheet by total project score, and you’ll have the first version of your prioritized list of projects. The higher the score, the more important that project is based on the criteria your team has set.

Four completed rows with calculated weighted scores from Smartsheets' weighted decision matrix

Step 7 – Discuss and Adjust Your Prioritized List 

The priority list is a great start in general, but it may often need to be adjusted for practicality. While importance scores are an effective guideline, the list should ultimately reflect the input of each team member and any considerations the criteria definition and scoring process didn’t cover. It’s good to have a meeting to discuss the final adjustments you may need to make.

First, while objective, our project prioritization system doesn’t account for dependencies. Make sure you factor in whether some projects rely on others’ completion before they can be started or completed themselves. Take your project list, add required tasks and sub-tasks, and map out any connections between them. Use this to adjust the list as necessary.

Your team might also identify other factors, like a regular seasonal downturn deprioritizing sales or revenue criteria. Key players assigned to the top project on your priority list may be engaged in an ongoing project, so remember to build flexibility into your process. After all, the final prioritized list should reflect reality on the ground. 

Once you’ve reached a consensus, finalize your master list by adding any mandatory or routine projects we set aside in Step 1. After that, it’s time to get down to the work at hand in the order you’ve just determined through collaboration and analytical decision-making.

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