Project Prioritization Matrix: Avoid These 4 Common Mistakes

Written by Stuart Easton


In this blog I often talk about the project prioritization process and the best method of implementing it. In this article I would like to share some ideas on how to use the prioritization matrix to prioritize projects in a way that gives you a chance to succeed.

What is Prioritization Matrix?

A prioritization matrix is a simple tool where you create a set of criteria (which should map to your business goals) and use them to score your projects. Why? Well, you’re trying to work out which projects are most important so that you can prioritize them.

It’s pretty simple in concept, but can be really hard to do well.

It’s not the maths that’s difficult (and that’s where most articles on prioritization matrices focus), it’s all the human stuff...

Benefits of Prioritization Matrix

In principle, a prioritization matrix is easy to use and to use to make decisions. Most business managers can understand the concept of a weighted score in a spreadsheet.

Once you have your spreadsheet, it’s easy to tweak criteria weights and to see the effect on your ranking immediately.

Your priority matrix also spits out a clean, unambiguous number for “priority”. This is something that everyone can understand and relate to.

Prioritization Matrix For Projects

Let’s spend a minute looking at how the project prioritization matrix is usually deployed.

First, you define a set of criteria that you will use to score projects. These criteria should reflect your business goals. You should then weight these criteria - usually people will give each one a percentage-based weighting.

Next, you score your projects. You need to score each project against each criterion, but you need to come up with a suitable scale.

In decision-science speak, we talk about normalizing scores. This means either using the same scale (e.g. 1-5 scale) for all criteria or doing some maths to convert scores into “normalized scores” - I won’t go into how you do this here, but be aware of this step - many people miss it and it causes problems.

Now you have your weighted criteria and your scores for each project, you can work out the weighted score for each project by doing a fairly simple calculation:

(Weight of Criterion 1 x Score of Criterion 1)  +   (Weight of Criterion 2 x Score of Criterion 2)  +  (Weight of Criterion 3 x Score of Criterion 3)  +  …..

Keep going until you have added up the weighted scores for all the criteria… and that’s it. You have a priority score for your project… and you can move on to do the same calculation for the next project.

Of course, you’ll probably want to do this in a spreadsheet. This example (which you can download here) will show you what the maths looks like.

Sample project prioritization matrix

Problems with Project Prioritization Matrix

The core problem is caused by its main benefits - the prioritization matrix is a tool designed to be quick and easy to use... which is okay if decisions are not very important. If you’re prioritizing short tasks, things that don’t have much impact over the long term, then this is fine.

But projects are not tasks.

Projects are bigger and the consequences of picking the wrong ones can be spectacular.

For example, picking the wrong projects can increase your project failure rates by around 30%. That seems like a pretty significant consequence (view this infographic to see the impact of aligning projects to strategy).

So let’s look at why the project prioritization matrix fails and what we can do to fix it.

1. No alignment on criteria

Very often, a team that “owns resources” will put together a priority matrix to help figure out what they should tackle first.

The problem is that this team is not the “customer”. Those projects exist to support your “customer - stakeholders” and they should be the ones to select the criteria.>

Of course, you can own the “process” of selecting criteria - run a brainstorming workshop, for example - but your stakeholders should own the selection of criteria.

Download now: This free e-book has over 80 sample project prioritization  criteria


2. No process to establish weights

Your criteria are not all equally important.

What’s more, if you ask 5 stakeholders what weight to put on the criteria, you’ll probably get 10 answers!

Without agreement on this, your project prioritization matrix is meaningless.

Sure, it will give you some numbers, but those numbers will not be trusted (or even relevant) to your stakeholders. So yes, you’ll be able to make prioritization decisions, but you won’t be making decisions that actually help your stakeholders.

This is fundamentally why researchers have found that methods like the prioritization matrix don’t really work. In fact, there are just two methods of prioritizing projects that do work - AHP and DEA. Read more: The Best Project Prioritization Methods and Techniques

You can fix this problem by using project prioritization software to add AHP (which stands for the Analytic Hierarchy Process) to the front-end of the prioritization matrix maths.

AHP allows you to build a strong and clear consensus between stakeholders. This results in a set of weighted criteria that the stakeholders own, that they trust, that they value.

3. Broken collaboration on scoring

When you’re scoring a project against a criterion like “Impact on customer satisfaction,” you have to make a subjective judgement. Some people might see the “impact” of the project as being “Major” and others might consider it “Insignificant”.

If you don’t have a mechanism for resolving this, for bringing together different stakeholders to make subjective judgments, then your scores will end up being totally meaningless… at least, they will be meaningless to your stakeholders.

Some of your scores will be “hard numbers”. For example, the “net present value” or “number of systems impacted” are hard numbers, but somehow you have to get those data from the “subject matter expert” who holds them. This typically involves a lot of chasing and then cutting-and-pasting into spreadsheets.

This not only takes time, but is open to errors as you copy data from one place to another. It’s also common for data to be out of date.

Moving online, using a system like TransparentChoice, can really help.

TransparentChoice lets you collaborate with your stakeholders to build consensus around subjective judgments (such as “Impact on customer satisfaction”). By involving different stakeholders, and by automating some of this collaboration, you can build this consensus quickly and easily.

Overall, if you don’t collaborate effectively when scoring projects, your prioritized scores will not be “trusted”.

4. Score-based decisions

When you’re prioritizing small, tactical items (tasks, maintenance items, etc.), you can usually use the “score” from your matrix to prioritize work. Taking the task with the highest score is typically a good rule.

Projects are different.

Projects exist to help you achieve more strategic business goals. They compete for resources and for budget. Sometimes, there are dependencies between projects and the whole decision is usually quite political. This means you need to balance resources across different departments, different business goals, etc…. and all while tracking your various resource constraints and budget.

You could do this in spreadsheets, but if you have more than 5 or 10 projects, it will get really complicated really quickly.

Good software, like TransparentChoice, lets you track not only the scores but also the cost for each project. It lets you balance the projects across business drivers while tracking your different resource constraints. It even tracks project dependencies for you (so you never approve a project without first approving its “predecessors”).

And you can do it all in one convenient dashboard.

TransparentChoice Dashboard

Summary

The Prioritization Matrix is a popular way to make decisions, but using it for project prioritization and selection may not be very effective.

The concepts behind it are sound - we want to maximize alignment with our goals, and use weighted scoring to do that - but the practice typically falls short in areas such as:

  • Defining the appropriate criteria to use
  • Weighting those criteria (with stakeholder buy-in)
  • Collaborating to score projects quickly and “accurately”
  • Balancing factors other than “score”

Software like TransparentChoice can help you take the project prioritization matrix ideas to a new level leading to a portfolio of projects that enjoy stronger stakeholder support and, in turn, enjoy higher success rates.

Learn more

If you’d like to learn more about how to prioritize projects like a pro, this blog is a great place to start: How to Prioritize Projects. Also, we’ve created this Ultimate Guide to Project Prioritization and Selection for you.

If you want to start improving your prioritization process but are struggling to work out how to move it forward, a good starting point is figuring out where you are today. You can sign up for a free session where we will show you how to do this. This will help you clearly identify where improvement is needed and what the benefit of an improved prioritization process would be.


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