If you are like most organizations, you have a strategic plan that’s filled to the brim with tasks, initiatives, and deliverables all slated to be completed over the planning period (usually three years). I recently saw a strategic plan with the usual 5 strategic directions supported by, on average, 9 actions, initiatives, or projects each. That amounts to 45 projects total to be completed in just three years!
While I’d like to say that this is unusual, sadly, it isn’t.
I’m sure that you know what happens next. Each of these activities/initiatives becomes a line item in a huge project tracking Gantt chart. I’ve seen these documents range from 20+ projects for a small enterprise to over 60 items for a larger organization. Quite often, the majority of these projects are up and running right out of the gate even though the organization is working with a three or five year planning window.
I often wonder how they manage to keep the work of the organization going with all of these projects diverting attention and capacity. Many do it by, frankly, running their staff ragged while most simply fail to see all of the projects on their list through to completion.
The sad fact is that leaders in these organizations think that the problem is that their organization just isn’t good at managing everything that’s going on. However, the truth is that it’s just not reasonable for an organization to be able to accomplish a high number of projects AND keep the lights on. A first critical problem is the volume of projects on the “to do” list.
Now, many consultants will tell business leaders that 20+ projects is unrealistic (true) and that they need to aggressively shorten their list down to 3 – 5 projects per year (how do we know whether this will be enough to move far enough down the field over the planning period?). And while this sounds like good advice, business leaders and organizations STILL continue to struggle with massive lists of projects with similar timelines. Why?
I think that it’s because we have fallen short and haven’t provided business leaders with a solid way of deciding which projects should go on a project “short list”. In other words, business leaders need an approach for assessing and then prioritizing the projects their organization COULD undertake over the planning period.
Let’s take a look at a four step, fact-based approach that I use to help the business leaders I work with do exactly this.
PHASE 1: Keeping the Project List in Your Strategic Plan Manageable
Step1: Achieve consensus on what your strategy really is
Did you realize that most strategic plans I see actually fail to complete this important first step?
Before you have a hope of being able to assess and prioritize the projects, tasks, and action steps you are considering completing over the planning period, you need to have a clear idea of:
- The ultimate outcome your company or organization is trying to produce;
- The critical, high value objectives you must focus on and deliver against over the long-term to produce that ultimate outcome; and
- Where you want to be, in measurable terms, by the end of the planning period.
Readers of this blog know that my preferred tool for capturing this information is the strategy map. It’s ideally positioned to document and display your thinking on the items above. Completing step 1 allows you to clearly identify the high-value essentials that must be present and working well in your organization to achieve your desired ultimate outcome. Most importantly, this information provides you with a focused framework and criteria for project assessment and prioritization.
Step 2: Identify strategy-critical strengths and gaps
How well is your organization positioned today to get to where you want to be by the end of the planning period? Do you have any gaps in your current business that will prevent you for performing any of those high value objectives that support delivery of your ultimate outcome? Do you have any strategy-critical strengths that must be preserved over the planning period (and could be put at risk by focusing on closing gaps only)? Where is performance on those high value objective areas today versus where they need to be by the end of the planning period?
Ideally, you’ll leverage performance results data and facts to answer these important questions about the current state of your organization. After you’ve completed this step in the process you should have a good idea of the gaps you need to close to get to the level of performance you’d like to achieve by the end of the planning period. Step 2 concludes with using this information to create a more focused and relevant list of strength maintaining and gap closing projects that you should consider implementing.
PHASE 2: Using Criteria to Prioritize the Project List
Step 3: Develop, assess, and prioritize your project options
Now it’s time to critically evaluate your project options. How will you finalize your list of possible projects and what criteria will you use to create a prioritized list? Here’s how:
Using your project list from step 2, you’ll want to assess (1) the strategic value of each proposed project, as well as (2) the size of the gap each project is designed to close. The table below outlines the different questions you can pose to complete this assessment.
Express your answer to each question as a number rating (I’ve provided a guide to each rating scale below the table). Leverage the information gathered during steps 1 and 2 to develop your rating responses.
Use the combined ratings for each project to determine the relative priority of each project on your list. Now, re-organize your list of project options based on their ranking. Priority 1 projects are a high priority and go to the top of the list, followed by priority 2A, 2B, and 3 projects. Projects that are not a priority should be set aside for now – since they have been deemed to have low strategic value, you should think about taking them off your “to do” list permanently.
Step 4: Space out your project deployment plan over the entire planning period
Now that you have your project options sorted in priority order it’s time to decide how to stage these projects over the planning period. Though there’s no hard and fast rules about how to make your scheduling choices, the relative priority ranking of your projects should make this process fact-based and easier to do.
A word to the wise: Resist the temptation to front-end load your projects in year 1!
The smart alternative is to begin in year one with your priority 1 projects – these have high strategic value AND you have a big gap to close. Many organizations decide to get started sooner than later with these gap closing efforts. If you find that you have a long list of priority 1 projects, you can do a further ranking within the priority 1 project list. Simply place projects with a higher strategic value - gap rating closer to the top of the list and get started with those projects first. Priority 2 and 3 projects can be scheduled for later in the planning period since you’ll need less time (and probably less effort and fewer resources) to close the gap.
Some organizations choose to attack a few lower priority projects in year 1 because they offer the promise of “quick wins”. This is fine. How you choose to schedule your projects over the planning period should be driven by the combination of the priority ranking and the culture and capacity of your organization.
At the end of this thoughtful process you should have a short list of relevant projects that are timed for completion over the planning period on a schedule that’s do-able and is endorsed by the people tasked with completing the projects.
I see too many organizations with too many strategic projects struggling with unrealistic project completion timelines. The root causes of this difficult problem usually include (1) an unclear definition of the high-value, “must have” elements of their strategy, and (2) a lack of a strategy-focused, evidence-based method for project selection and prioritization. Organizations that implement the four step process I’ve outlined here still have to make difficult project choices but most report that it’s far easier to make these choices because they can bring an objective set of criteria to their discussion and decision-making process.
Does your strategic plan include a huge list of projects, activities, tasks, and deliverables? Is your organization struggling to successfully manage everything you’ve committed to in your strategic plan?
If so, take a step back and use this four step approach to critically evaluate, refine and re-prioritize your strategic project list.