How to Prioritize Projects

Learn the art of picking the right projects to run at the right time.

There is no shortage of great ideas.

Ask anyone who’s shipped meaningful work and they’ll tell you the same thing: ideas are a fraction of what matters. The devil is in the execution.

Execution is where you pay the real price for your projects. Time, money, and resources… projects require an investment. Which is why it’s critical you learn how to prioritize your projects.

For many project managers, prioritizing projects is easier said than done. In this article, we’ll go over some simple and effective project prioritization frameworks to help you pick the right projects at the right time.


How to Prioritize Projects Effectively

Building your system for prioritizing projects takes time. However, there are a few foundational elements project managers and organizations can apply to select and schedule projects more effectively.

Here at Basecamp, we ask ourselves a few key questions before committing time and resources to any project:

Does the problem matter?

Even the most well-resourced businesses on Earth will have more problems than they have resources to solve them.

Prioritizing projects means being selective about which problems and challenges you choose to solve. Not all problems are worth solving (at least right now).

If you’re staring at a slate of potential projects you’re looking to schedule, ask yourself and your team about the problems these projects will solve, and if they truly need solving at this point.

Do you have the right appetite?

At Basecamp, we’re big believers in setting an “appetite” for any project we work on… i.e., we decide what a project is worth to us before we commit.

For example, a particular new feature might be given an appetite of four weeks — meaning if a developer and a designer can build and deploy this feature in four weeks or less, we believe it’s a worthwhile investment. Any longer, and we’re not quite sure…

In addition to helping us be mindful of our time and resources, setting project appetites also allows us to better prioritize what comes next. Sure, building a brand new website might seem like a high priority, but once you realize that you could make 3 or 4 new product improvements with the same appetite as a site redesign, you may want to shift your priorities.

Is this the right time?

Everything has a time and a place, and projects are no exception. Just because you decide a problem is worth solving and you have the proper appetite, that doesn’t mean you need to start that project right now.

Prioritizing projects is more than analyzing numbers on a screen. It’s about reading the room, and understanding situations such as team burnout from constant work on the same set of features, customer satisfaction that comes from solving minor (but super annoying) pain points, etc.

Always remember that there’s nothing wrong with tabling high-value projects for a later date if you feel now is not the right time.

Pitfalls To Avoid When Prioritizing Projects

While answering these three questions will greatly improve your ability to prioritize projects, there are still some roadblocks you’re likely to encounter along the way.

Here are some common pitfalls to avoid when prioritizing projects:

  • Underestimating the time required: Even if you do an excellent job prioritizing your projects, it won’t matter if everything runs over schedule. Proper time management is crucial for project management. This is why we are such big proponents of setting an appetite. If projects run over and exceed our appetite, there is no extension by default. Meaning sometimes we abandon weeks worth of work. This may seem harsh, but it forces us to be vigilant about setting proper time expectations up front, and ensuring teams stay on track throughout the entire project lifecycle.
  • Not having a clear understanding of project goals: Each project must have a clear purpose and direction. If your team doesn’t know what it’s working toward, it will be difficult for team members to stay focused on getting the job done.
  • Failing to address risks associated with each investment: Risks are among the most critical factors that can affect your projects. They come in the form of budgetary constraints, scope creep, operational restrictions and inadequate staffing. While the severity of these risks and their impact on your projects will vary, you should always consider any potential setbacks before investing time and resources into a new project.
  • Using too many software solutions: Spreading yourself over an array of software solutions can significantly slow down your team and make it more challenging to collaborate. Finding a project management platform that keeps everything under one roof is crucial for project efficiency.

Prioritizing Your Projects

Prioritizing projects doesn’t always come easy, but it is a skill worth learning.

Start by asking yourself the three key questions: Is this problem worth solving? What’s our appetite? & Is this the right time?

Armed with these answers, you’ll be well on your way to slotting projects and project resources effectively.

If you’re looking for more project management resources, be sure to check out The Basecamp Guide to Project Management. And if you’re looking for a better way to keep all your projects organized, try Basecamp for free today.

Originally published

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