Project prioritization is an art form. You have to understand goals and outcomes, negotiate with different personalities, and somehow see the future. Some days you might feel like an expert, and other days you may not know where to begin. If only a Magic 8 ball really worked!
Good prioritization can lead to process efficiencies, a happy team, and project success. In this article, you’ll learn about different frameworks you can use to prioritize projects and tasks. Use these frameworks to deal with difficult stakeholders, reduce daily fires, and bring clarity to what’s important.
Project prioritization is the process of determining the best order for completing a group of projects or tasks. It may be based on criteria like how the work impacts business or financial goals, organizational risk, staff availability, and/or potential for success.
In general, we usually see 3 levels of prioritization in project management:
When you don’t stop to prioritize, you tend to tackle what’s easiest, loudest, or most fun. While I’m all about doing something easy when it’s been a tough day, it’s not usually the best approach.
Simply put, the purpose of project prioritization is to ensure you create and execute on a strategic plan. As a result, your team and organization can enjoy the following benefits:
As a project manager and leader, it’s your job to not only identify when prioritization is needed. You also have to know:
That might sound like a lot—and it is! However, a good prioritization process can help you feel less overwhelmed. Let’s walk through the basics of how it’s done.
Not every project stakeholder needs to be part of the prioritization process. I usually consider a few factors:
Once you’ve identified which stakeholders you want to invite—and they’ve agreed to participate—you’ll need to create and share ground rules around how you’re going to interact as a group to accomplish your goals.
Before prioritization can begin, all your stakeholders need to align on the strategic direction of the process and/or project. Make sure everyone is clear about:
Next, make a list of all the items you need to prioritize during this process. The scope might be limited to tasks of your own or within a single project—or it may include a broader list of projects to consider.
As the project manager, you can take the lead by creating a full list of needs in a document, pulling from sales documents, RFPs, conversations, and things you’ve observed. Then share it with your stakeholders, adding anything that’s missing before coming together to workshop priorities.
At this stage, your focus should be on making sure your list is clear and complete—not prioritizing or removing things from the list. It’s also a great time to get all your prioritization items into an online tool like TeamGantt so you can easily track, edit, organize, and assign them.
You’ll need to establish a clear set of criteria for prioritization and share it with stakeholders for feedback. Just be prepared: Not everyone will agree on which criteria to use.
Ultimately, your team’s decision-maker should finalize the criteria before you jump into your prioritization session. That way, it doesn’t become a moving target.
Here are a few examples of criteria you might consider including:
Criteria should align with both short- and long-term goals and be put in order of importance (just in case you need to break a tie). Make sure your prioritization criteria are specific enough to bring clarity to the process (e.g., your timeline is 4 months).
A prioritization framework gives structure to the conversation and provides a clear process for making decisions. This helps build team consensus and guide any future changes and discussions.
While all frameworks group and rank items, some go into more depth than others. Consider the goal of your prioritization process and whether a simple or complex framework will best support that goal.
For example, let’s say you’re thinking about using a framework based on a numerical scoring system (vs simple grouping). In that case, closely consider your stakeholder group. In my experience, numbering frameworks tend to work best with internal teams. With external clients, it’s enough to just process the scope and get on the same page.
Now it’s time to get to work! Schedule one or more meetings to prioritize your scope as a team.
Start the workshop by clarifying any items that still don’t make sense. Ideally, most questions will be answered in the lead-up to the meeting since stakeholders will have time to review the scope beforehand. But there’s always something left to discuss.
Then, review the framework you’ll be using for prioritization, and give stakeholders time to process the list. Depending on the size of your scope, you might allow 10 minutes of quiet time to map priorities before working together to complete the framework. While everyone was supposed to look things over ahead of time, there’s always at least one in the bunch who didn’t.
After the meeting(s), share the results with all project stakeholders (even those who weren’t part of prioritization meetings). This step is important because it:
This is likely not a one-time event. After all, plans change, new projects come in, and prioritization criteria evolves. Be prepared to revisit this process—maybe even with a different framework—again. Prioritization might happen monthly, quarterly, or annually, depending on the scope you’re working with.
You might think your process is just fine or that your workload isn’t complicated enough to need a formal prioritization process. However, I’ve found the process—and the framework that guides it—always provides value, no matter the size or complexity of your scope.
You might have already mastered this technique, and that’s great! If not, here are some signs a prioritization framework could come in handy:
There are many different types of prioritization frameworks, but they all help you clarify, choose, and agree on priorities. No matter which one you choose, you'll make progress together.
You’ll likely gravitate to a process that aligns with the situations you deal with most, but some situations might call for a different approach. So let’s take a look at a few popular methods and break down how they work. We’ll focus on these 5 prioritization frameworks:
The MoSCoW method was created by software development expert Dai Clegg while working at Oracle. He created this framework to help his team prioritize their work during product releases.
MoSCoW is an acronym (with extra O's) that stands for:
Here’s an example of the MoSCoW method, with each category broken into its own column. You could adapt this format to a Kanban board in TeamGantt so it’s easy to workshop priorities as a team and move right into a plan.
This framework is great for quickly gathering requirements from stakeholders—even those who don’t have a technical background. Just be sure you have a clear way to map your prioritization criteria to these categories, and include feedback and needs from your customers.
The Eisenhower matrix—also known as the urgent-important matrix—is a simple decision-making framework that helps you separate projects or tasks based on their level of importance and urgency.
The name of this framework was inspired by a speech by President Dwight Eisenhower at Northwestern University in which he quoted a former college president:
“I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”
Before you get started, it’s important for everyone to clearly understand the difference between urgent and important tasks. So let’s take a moment to define each term.
Now, you’re ready to create an Eisenhower matrix for your tasks or projects. In this framework, you’ll categorize items into 4 quadrants.
To make sure your criteria is part of this process, prioritize the items under each category and then sub-prioritize hierarchically or with scoring.
The value vs effort matrix is another simple framework for prioritizing work. In this model, you use value and effort scores to quantify your scope of features and goals.
The matrix also has a classic view of 4 squares. Each quadrant weighs the value and effort needed to complete the tasks, as shown in the example below:
Value should align with the criteria you’ve already established for prioritization. Effort, however, will need clarification as part of this process. Defining what effort means for your team will help you down the road as the project scope changes and grows.
Work with stakeholders to estimate value and effort for each scope item and complete the matrix. Your goal here is to quickly organize and plan—not produce final estimates. You can go back and make more concrete estimates later.
The scoring system is really up to you, but I often work with numerical scales. For example, I tend to stick with a range of 1 to 5 for smaller projects. For larger scopes, I like to extend the scale from 1 to 20 so we don’t end up with too many 5s.
The Kano model forces you to look outside for direction, bringing customer opinions to the forefront of your discussions. Japanese researcher Dr. Noriaki Kano created this technique in 1984 to assess user satisfaction alongside a product’s functionality.
This technique requires you to conduct user research before prioritizing work. You might use tools like focus groups, individual stakeholder interviews, or surveys to collect user feedback. Just make sure your sample size is large enough to see clear trends.
Once you have the data, weigh and map it against your prioritization criteria. Then place requirements into one of 5 categories:
The scoring method makes it easier to see how projects you need to prioritize stack up against each other. It tends to take more time, but if you have it, you can work through value and order as a team and come to strong agreements.
Here’s a basic rundown of how this framework works:
If you have the time—and the right group—I recommend using a weighted scoring model, which assigns a weight to each criterion. This will provide more accurate scoring and ensure the most important criteria influence prioritization. If you do this, determine it at the beginning so you aren’t influenced by the total scores.
Here’s an example of a weighted scoring model:
If you just need a quick and direct method for prioritization, this model works just fine without weighting. You’ll still get a lot out of the process and conversations (and frankly won’t argue about the weight of each criterion).
Let’s look at an example of how you might apply the scoring model framework to a project so you have a clear understanding of how it works in the real world.
First, I want to set the scene. Let’s say you work for an agency that has a larger university system as a client. This university has many projects—including college websites and pet projects—as well as tasks they’d like to complete on specific web entities. They have a nice size budget but lack internal resources to do all the work. So they’ve turned to your agency to complete it.
Unfortunately, their backlog has been growing for quite some time, and the various stakeholders are getting restless. While your team would love to take on all this work, you can’t do it immediately. You decide to work with the key decision-makers to set priorities.
You start by creating alignment around strategic organizational goals, your process goals, and the criteria you plan to use for prioritization. It might look something like this:
With this criteria and your full scope list in hand, it’s time to prioritize!
In this example, the university already weeded out items that don’t need to be done at all in the foreseeable future, so we’ll use the scoring model as our framework for prioritization. Since both big projects and smaller tasks needed prioritization, we set a wide range for scoring using a 0-10 scale.
After a couple of prioritization workshops with key stakeholders, we ended up with the following scorecard:
Now your team can use this scorecard to determine the order of projects. Working from highest to lowest total score, you’d start by making the Campus Visit Interface project your top priority.
Of course, you might decide the criteria you use in the process aren’t all equal and adjust your list by weighting items on the scorecard. For example, maybe your Resources criterion has a higher scoring range than Business Value since the volume of work completed is more important in this situation. This weighted scale ideally would have been set at the start, though.
Frameworks provide a great structure for prioritization. But we all know it can be challenging to execute any process once you bring people into the mix.
That’s why it’s important to watch out for the pitfalls. Here are a few that can knock your prioritization efforts off course.
Loud voices in the room often intimate others and take over the time. They prioritize their needs and lack empathy for the common good. Have a process that lifts all voices and gives equal(ish) time and support to everyone involved. Also, make sure everyone understands this process is about achieving global goals together.
As time passes, more tasks pop up, and you drift away from the plan. Revisit the priorities each week to stay on top of your to-dos, as well as the plan the team outlined. This is especially critical when your boss (or your client’s boss) throws their pet projects into the mix.
New tasks and projects will arise over time, but don’t push them to the front of the line. Instead, determine how they fit into your current plan using the same criteria as your guide. If that doesn’t work, bring the stakeholders back together to reprioritize.
You may have team members who think they don’t have time—or a say—in prioritization. If there’s even one reason why you think they should be included, help them understand why they’re important and get them engaged in the process.
Not all projects can take the #1 spot on the priority list. Negotiation and compromise come with the process, so it’s important to designate a final decision-maker everyone will concede to when you come to an impasse.
As project managers, we often feel like we can do this on our own or believe there isn’t time in the budget to workshop priorities. I get it. And, yep, I’m completely guilty of it. There’s just so much gained, though, by bringing others into the process—whether it’s better collaboration, new scope, or all-around buy-in.
At the end of the day, there are only so many humans and funds to complete the work. You have to be realistic about this and not just assume people can max their time and eventually get things in. Make sure constraints are visible and accounted for at every stage of the prioritization process so you can set reasonable expectations.
You’ve probably noticed these frameworks are visual, and that’s critical for engaging visual learners. It also helps everyone at the table connect the dots and understand the big picture better.
That’s why it’s important to find a tool for capturing and managing project priorities in a visual way. You might use a digital whiteboard tool for the workshops or jump right into a project planning platform (since you’ll eventually need to schedule, assign, and track tasks and resources).
TeamGantt is a great option to do this. Here are just a few features that make it a good fit for prioritization:
While there’s a warm place in my heart for a good 2x2 matrix, I also feel that way about Kanban boards. TeamGantt offers this view, and I like to add a column for each quadrant in the grid. This makes it easy to sub-prioritize items within each category too.
Here’s an example of what it would look like if you set your TeamGantt board up using the MoSCoW matrix as your framework. In this setup, we used the Points field to indicate priority rank and task labels for prioritization criteria.
And here’s how you might use a board to prioritize features with the Kano model. In this example, we used the Campus Visit Interface overhaul as our project.
You can pull cards from multiple projects into a custom board for prioritization across teams or initiatives—or prioritize tasks from a single project with a project board. Either way, every card on your board ties directly back to a task in your gantt chart, so it’s easy to schedule, assign, and track work.
TeamGantt lets you create custom, color-coded labels and assign them to the items you’ll be prioritizing. For example, you might set up labels for your prioritization criteria so you can quickly scan your list to see which scope items fit what criteria and if any meet multiple criteria. It also makes moving items from one category super-fast as your group re-evaluates where things belong.
Set up priority folders for better visibility in Portfolio view. This makes it a lot easier to keep track of all your projects in a centralized hub, which is great if you’re prioritizing at the project vs task level. You can organize projects by team, department, client, project owner, quarter, and more.
Want to keep extra tabs on your top projects or tasks? Click the star to favorite an item, and bring it to the top of your list for ultimate visibility.
The hardest part of the prioritization process is figuring out what’s worth your team’s time and committing to only the most valuable, urgent, and important projects. Once you’ve decided where to focus your energy, you’re ready to put together a plan and start knocking out work.
And that’s where TeamGantt can help lighten your load. With TeamGantt, you can stay nimble as priorities shift—and keep your team and stakeholders informed—so nothing falls through the cracks and everyone’s happy with the outcome.
Want to take TeamGantt for a spin? Sign up today, and try your first project free!
Lynn is a freelance Digital Strategist who combines 20+ years of experience in content strategy, user experience, and project management to bring a holistic approach to her work. She has spoken at numerous local and national conferences and hosts an annual conference for Digital Project Managers called Manage Digital. You can connect with her at lynnwintermn.com.