As a teenager, I was addicted to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Douglas Adams’ masterpiece was filled with wry observations about human nature and one scene in particular has been coming back to me recently. In it, the Golgafrinchams are trying to invent the wheel. They make a total hash of it, but the only thing they worry about is what colour it should be. Classic!
Nobody has really reinvented the wheel for a few thousand years now, so why, oh why, do so many PMOs try to reinvent the wheel when it comes to prioritizing projects?
There is a right way
Because every point on the rim of the wheel is an equal distance from the axle, a wheel can roll along the ground without the thing it’s carrying jogging up-and-down too much. This is not about the comfort of the passenger, it’s about energy efficiency. If you watch this video, you’ll see that the first thing that happens, if you try to drive a pickup truck on square wheels, is that you have to lift the whole truck up… and trucks are heavy.
So, round wheels are round for a reason. It's not arbitraty; there is a right way to build a wheel.
In fact, the basic design of the wheel has been around since around 3,500 BCE. Once someone came up with the idea of a round thing with a stick poking through the middle that can roll and carry loads… Well, it just worked and since then, we’ve only tinkered with the details; what’s it made from, how to construct it, how big is the stick, etc. Of couse, there's always someone out there who wants to prove that wheels don't HAVE to be round, but... well, look at it!
As a slight aside, that 3,500 BCE date is surprisingly late. By then, people were already casting metal alloys, building canals and sail-boats, and even building complex things like harps. It took time for the right design to emerge, but when it did, it was right.
Project prioritization - the right way
This is a blog post born of frustration.
I’ve recently had a few conversations with PMO leaders who talked about their project prioritization and selection process having swung from “sitting in a room and just talking about it” all the way to “a spreadsheet with lots of numbers”... and back again… and again… and again. They were, in other words, trying to reinvent the wheel and failing.
There is simply no need for this. None at all.
There is best practice out there for prioritizing projects - and it too took time to emerge. It's built on real research; decision science, cognitive neuroscience (learn about the science behind project prioritization here). This process has been validated through research in schools of engineering and schools of business around the world. Like the wheel, the process is the way it is for good reasons.
You don’t need to invent it, folks. It exists and it’s good.
1. Get agreement from your key stakeholders about what “value” means to them. Strategic alignment is usually part of that definition, as are risk and financial contribution. I like the analytic hierarchy process (AHP for short) for this alignment process and we recently released a free project prioritization tool that you can use to get started and to play around a bit. Defining what you want from your portfolio is a contact sport - it’s collaborative and involves multiple stakeholders. There’s no good short-cut - you need to get people in a room and talk it through in a structured way (which is where AHP comes in). Crucially, this isn’t something someone just made up - AHP has been honed over 40-odd years of decision science research... so you shouldn’t try and reinvent it.
2. Next you need to evaluate your projects in light of the goals and priorities you set out in step 1. These goals typically become a set of criteria you can use to “measure value” of projects and to compare them. This helps reduce the politics of project prioritization and makes the whole process more… well, more rational. Even better, done right, you get to leverage the expertise of team-members across the organization which both reduces bias and improves the quality of data.
3. Finally, you need to select a deliverable portfolio. Steps 1 and 2 are usually pretty quick and easy to implement. This third step can take longer because it requires you to have a picture of the resources you have available and to make reasonably accurate estimates for the resources your projects will consume. Then you want to maximize the value being delivered given the resources available. Again, there are tools that can take some of the strain from this process, though in my experience the “big PPM solutions” do a pretty poor job. There are specialists like Mortfolio and MeisterPlan who do it better.
So, my advice is this: stop trying to reinvent the wheel.