As I've worked in and with many different organizations over the last 20+ years, (sorry for those of you who thought I was still in my twenties!) I've been confused, frustrated, and sometimes completely appalled some of the criteria that I see people use to determine which initiatives/projects should be worked on first.  I don't think I've met a firm that didn't have more "good ideas" than they had time to implement.  The activity of prioritizing initiatives can have great impact on a firm's effectiveness and efficiency in the course of a year.  Below are some of the most frequent methods I've seen, and the pitfalls that come with them.

1) Interview key stakeholders and ask their opinion

While it is almost always a great idea to get input from multiple stakeholders, both to leverage the varying perspectives and to gain "buy-in" to the decisions you ultimately make, I've seen this method do more damage than good.  Typically, someone is assigned to conduct interviews with the stakeholders.  There is often, little or no preparation, regarding the questions to be asked. Usually, the conversation starts with “Which of these projects do you think is most important?”  the stakeholder gives there response and the “interviewer” moves on to the next stakeholder, feeling great about having gotten such great feedback from stakeholder #1. 

Upon meeting with the second stakeholder, the interviewer realizes that this person believes that the initiative seen as most important in the previous interview is at the bottom of stakeholder #2’s list!   Continuing to conduct interviews with the remaining three stakeholders, the interviewer becomes bewildered.  While some of the stakeholders have similar ideas (let’s assume that there are only five being interviewed), many of them disagree. Uh oh.  What now?  

In this common scenario, what I’ve seen happen next is almost always a combination of the following:

  1. The interviewer “writes up the findings”, putting their own slant on things, based on what they personally believe is more important.

  2. The highest ranking stakeholder is asked to make a final decision and they “over-rule” everyone else’s recommendations.

  3. The interviewer goes into sales mode, and tries to revisit each stakeholder, trying to get them to agree on the priorities.  This is a huge time drain for everyone. 

The ultimate outcome to this approach almost always is that either:

  • All but one of the stakeholders feel like they were ignored and their time was wasted, when they learn that the initiative that “wins” was not their first choice, and they have no buy-in


  • No decision is ever made, due to a lack of consensus, and all initiatives are stalled.

2) Have a meeting to prioritize

In most firms, this is just a slight variation of #1 above.  The only difference is that the same process takes place with everyone in the same room.  A little less time is wasted, perhaps, but the results are often the same.  Worst case, it turns into an argument and everyone leaves frustrated. 

 3) Budget-based prioritization

I refer to this as “do the cheapest thing first”.   Sounds ridiculous, but I’ve seen numerous organizations (including one or three I’ve worked in) always choose to do the initiatives that will be the smallest drain or resources first.  This approach ignores the value of the initiative, and only looks at the cost.  There may be no tie between “expensive” initiatives and the value they bring to the company, but then again, there may be a very direct relationship.   When you only consider the cost in the priorities, you’ll never know!

4) Easiest first

This is only a slight variation of #3.   The focus is more on the people resources required than the impact on budget.  This is when people say “That won’t take very long.  Let’s go ahead and knock that project out first to get a success under our belt.”   You know you’ve heard it before!!  What??  You’ve actually said it before.  While the “easiest” initiative could bring lots of value, I find that many organizations that follow this approach have lots of people uber-busy with initiatives but the outcome is very little change at all in performance.

5) Roll dice/ Rock paper scissors

Go ahead and laugh.  It’s silly, right?  But be honest about it. Would this approach for prioritizing projects and initiatives be much less “value-based” than the four above?  Plus, the title said “Five Ways” not “Four Ways”. 


So what’s the point? 

The main point is that all five methods above fail to take into account several vital things:

  • What is the value the initiative will bring?  You’ve heard of ROI.   It's discussed all the time.  But from my experience, even when ROI is a “requirement” in a firm, it often is just used as a “hoop to jump through” to validate that the people who want the project are adept at making a case.  At the end of the day, I’ve rarely (if ever) seen actual ROI calculations used to prioritize among a group of initiatives.  Resources are constrained.  Many projects have positive ROI.   Too many companies apply the ineffective methods above to prioritize, even if they have weeded out the “really bad projects” by using ROI and business cases.
  • What’s your definition of success?   Sounds like a simple question, but have you taken the time to ensure that all the parties that are weighing in on the prioritization of initiatives are on the same page, regarding what success looks like?   Ask them.  Just say, “What’s our definition of success?”  If everyone says that same thing, you are a very rare organization, and should be super grateful for that!
  • What is the timeline for our prioritization exercise?   Without explicitly deciding and stating this, it is highly likely that all the participants will have different ideas.  While one may be thinking about a five year view of success when they are prioritizing, another may be thinking about “putting out the fire” that is happening today!
  • Who should have a say in this?   Some organizations have a culture of only allowing the very top execs to weigh in on important initiatives.  This can stifle buy-in and cause mistrust within the firm.   Other organizations want to involve everyone and their cousin in decisions and get consensus.  Obviously, this causes inordinate delays, and often considers input from those who truly have no perspective to bring to the table.

It is my hope that you glean some new insights from this.   The next time you need to prioritize your firms investments for the year, or your honey-do list for the weekend, don’t forget to think through your prioritization strategy and methodology.   You might complete the first two tasks/investments with great efficiency and effectiveness, but what if they should have been number 33 and 34 on your list!

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