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When you know the three characteristics of a priority project, you can organize your work to focus on the things that really matter for the company. Here’s what to look out for.

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How much of a priority is your project to the organization? In reality, you a probably managing a number of projects: most project managers do have juggle a few. Perhaps you’re leading one important project and a couple of others that have a lower priority but still need to get done. You have to split your time between them, ideally making sure that priority work gets the attention it needs.

The work of the Project Management Office (PMO) includes making sure projects are listed, worked on and delivered in a priority order that makes the most sense for the company. So what does make a project a high priority initiative? Here are three characteristics of priority projects.

1. Strategic Fit

The first – and most important, in my view – ranking factor for what makes a project important within a business is whether it fits with the strategy.

Your organization should have a strategic plan. That might be a three-year or five-year plan that lays out what the business wants to achieve in time, or even a plan over a shorter time-frame than that (or a mix of plans at various levels). It could be a mix of tangible deliverables like the launch of a new product or more visionary-led developments like brand differentiators or creating a culture where people want to work.

Projects are the way that organizations deliver strategy. If you don’t set up a project to deliver the things on the strategic plan, the plan remains a very interesting downloadable PDF on the corporate website, but nothing more. Writing a plan does not make it happen: asking project managers and executives to lead work to turn those plans into reality is the way to make steps towards living that strategy.

Therefore, projects that help deliver things on the strategic plan are naturally seen as priority because they spearhead the change that will help the organization move closer to its published goals.

Examples of projects which would have a strategic fit include:

  • Business transformation (technical or cultural) and organizational change
  • Launching new services or products
  • Opening or closing new facilities or buildings
  • Mergers and acquisitions.

2. Attention

How to spot a priority project? Priority projects gain attention. That’s attention from managers and executives, the industry as a whole, the stock markets, the press… People care about priority projects.

The positive side to this is that it is easy to get support for priority projects. If people are passionate about what is being delivered, the project becomes a priority almost by default. Resources flow towards it. Media coverage promotes (or criticizes) what is happening. People feel like they have a stake in the outcome or somehow own the result.

Internally, you will not find it difficult to gain support or executive attention for your project. Team leaders will make their staff members available, whether they personally approve of the project or not because they know it is a highly visible initiative and they need to be seen to do what is necessary to support it.

However, projects with a lot of management attention require a lot of stakeholder engagement and that can be time-consuming and distracting for the project management team. They should, of course, be doing a good amount of stakeholder engagement anyway (you don’t have to convince me, I wrote a book about engaging stakeholders) – but high-visibility projects need extra attention. Build in enough governance, reporting and communication to ensure that people have their voices heard.

Examples of projects what would commonly gain attention include:

  • Projects with an environmental impact
  • Innovation projects delivering something unique or new
  • Social justice initiatives
  • Any executive ‘pet’ project that is championed by a leader in the organization.

3. Value

Finally, the third characteristic of priority projects is that they deliver value. This should go hand-in-hand with strategic fit: the deliverables from the project have perceived value.

Value is a corporate buzzword thrown around casually in conversation, but you should be able to translate it into something meaningful for your environment. What is it that the business values?

Ultimately, the answer to that question doesn’t really matter, as long as there is an answer that people in the company agree on. Whether your firm values sustainable working practices, making as much money as possible, or delivering extraordinary customer service (or all three!), if your project aligns with a value driver, it will gain priority.

You’ll be able to talk about your project in terms that business leaders understand. They will see the immediate link between your project and what matters to them, and the organization overall.

Once you’ve bridged that gap, you will have got their attention, and your project shoots up the list of things that are important to them.

Some important projects don’t fit these criteria – as with all things in project management, there are exceptions! For example, a priority project might not directly align to a strategic attention or command much management attention, but it might deliver the infrastructure or some supporting feature that another project – a priority project – needs. That in itself should be enough to elevate a seemingly unimportant project to the realms of the top tier because without it, the strategic project could not happen.

Another consideration is that while these three characteristics give you a high level overview of whether a project is important or not, ultimately that decision rests with your stakeholders and the PMO. Your organization probably has its own method of ranking projects, that could take into account a wide variety of factors. When you’ve got dozens (or perhaps hundreds) of projects, you need detailed calculations and analysis to be able to put them in priority order in a very granular way.

Talk to your project management leadership team about the prioritization model in use in your business, and then see where your project fits. You might be surprised!