It was a tough meeting with an executive from one of my internal client groups. She outlined a number of IT issues that needed to be addressed right away. And, she reminded me of a few key strategic projects that needed traction — and now. We finished the meeting with her reminding me that “this is all a priority”.

The problem is:

“When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.” – Simon Fulleringer

It is darn-near impossible to do everything that is needed. Some will tell you that you’ve got to learn to say ‘no’. I wholeheartedly disagree. I think you’ve got to learn to say ‘yes’, but to say ‘yes’ (with qualification).

Saying yes (with qualification) takes a lot more work, though. But, the work is worth it, as you will set better expectations and create better results.

You need to ensure that your client is helping you make the difficult resource allocation decisions. It is best that they know the trade-offs of getting one project done as opposed to another. If your client helps you make the trade-offs, they will wholeheartedly support any compromise that might be needed. And, importantly, you will share in the celebration when you succeed together.

Here is a rough framework for working directly with your clients to set priorities in a way that will ensure your efforts are aligned with business needs:

1. List the Work. List all projects and operational work you are are being asked to do in a given time-frame. Include every project or initiative, big or small, regardless of how well the request is defined at this point. Note any hard deadlines. Work directly with client team members to get everything on the list. This may take several attempts, but stick with it. Resist the urge to exclude items because they seem easy or trivial. You want a comprehensive list.

2. Estimate the Work. Enlist your team to make rough estimates of each project or initiative. How long will it take an average team member to complete the work? I like to use the Person-Week (PW) measure (i.e. one person working for a week) for this. You will get resistance from your team, as people are often uncomfortable providing an estimate unless they know all the details. You will have to make educated guesses and add in appropriate contingency. The greater the uncertainty in requirements, the more contingency time you will want to add in.

3. Estimate your Resources. Now, how many people do you have to apply to the work? For a given period of time, estimate the resources you have. If you have 10 people, and the timeframe you’ve chosen is 3 months, you have (10 people X 3 months X 4 weeks/month) or 120 Person-Weeks. Then, account for training time, administration, vacation, sick days, and emergency issues. For my organization I use a factor of 77% (which means that, after vacations, sick days, training days and such, they will apply 77% of their time to the work). In our 120 PW example, we would have (120 PW X 77%) 92 Person Weeks to apply to the work.

4. Compare. First, add up the work, then add up the resources and compare. In rough numbers, how does it look? At this point, I like to do a rough assignment of people to projects at this point, to expose any expertise bottlenecks. Can the resources you have handle the volume of work? Usually there is more work than there are resources. This means it is time to…

5. Negotiate. Now share this analysis with your client, and work toward establishing an mutually agreeable plan where the work you commit to matches the resources you have. You can begin by asking your client to prioritize given the resource requirements for each initiative or project. You might be surprised with what your client prioritizes — they may exclude projects you thought were critical, or include projects you thought were less important. This exercise is powerful! Keep going until you agree on the work list. Whatever you do, don’t begin to reduce estimates to try to fit everything in. If you do, you won’t be able to…

6. Deliver. This part is critical. You need to deliver what you said you would. If there are surprises along the way (things take longer than expected), or if there is additional work, you will want to estimate the changes and get back to negotiation. Transparency here is key. Don’t try to cover up a missed target. Acknowledge it, make changes to your plan, then move on. You want to build credibility for your team and the process so you can continue to deliver.

This structure may feel uncomfortable and restrictive to some, but I can assure you, your clients will love it. There is nothing better in a CIO’s day than when a client asks for more resources to be added to the IT team to help meet their requirements!

If you have thoughts or ideas about how to prioritize when everything is a priority please let me know if the comment section below.

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