How to End the Pain of Shifting Project Priorities

Paul Boag

Most internal digital teams I encounter are in a state of firefighting, involving the juggling of constantly changing project priorities. That has to end, and I am going to show you how.

We have all experienced the problems. That rush job that the team is expected to do this week, or a senior manager who insists you drop everything for his or her project.

Projects are either prioritised based on who shouts the loudest or on a first-come-first-served basis. There is little consideration of what is best for the business, and any project your team wants to see done, never even gets a look in!

Of course, this wouldn’t be a problem if digital teams had enough people to do all the work demanded of them, but that is never the case. There is always a backlog of work to be done.

Expanding the size of the digital team to accommodate demand would seem like the obvious answer. But what is obvious, is not what happens in most organisations. The next best solution is to prioritise incoming work better. A problem I have solved with a solution I call digital triage.

Digital Triage: A Better Way to Prioritise Projects

If you have ever watched an episode of M.A.S.H. or a documentary set in an emergency room, you’re already aware of triage. In such situations, as patients come in doctors assess their injuries. The more serious the injury, the faster they receive care. When it comes to life and death, a first-come-first-serve approach is not always the best.

One thing they teach doctors arriving at the scene of the disaster is not to prioritise patients who were screaming for help. If they are capable of doing that, then they do not need immediate attention.

There is a lot we can learn from this approach to prioritisation.

For a start, we should not be dealing with incoming projects on a first-come-first-served basis. We should be prioritising the “critical projects”, the ones that are life-and-death for the organisation.

Second, we cannot presume that critical projects are those backed by the most vocal colleagues. Just because they shout does not mean they are urgent.

Like a doctor, we need a more objective way of prioritising our patients as they come to us, and that is digital triage.

How to Prioritise With Digital Triage

The first thing to note is that I have built digital triage on the premise that each ‘team’ should only be working on a single job at a time. Switching back and forth between tasks is incredibly detrimental to productivity and long-term agility.

How many teams your company chooses to run simultaneously is mostly down to available resources, but I tend to recommend as a minimum an organisation splits its digital team into two. One group will focus on smaller support pieces of work, while the other handles larger, longer term projects.

I recommend most digital teams are split into two work streams. One focuses on support, the other on larger, future focused projects.

Each team will have a ‘stack’ of work to be done. A prioritised list of jobs that they work through over time.

The jobs in that stack are prioritised based on a point system with different assessment criteria contributing to the overall points a task has.

Digital Triage prioritises the order in which projects are completed based on a points system.

1. Defining Your Criteria

What those criteria are is up to your company, but typically I use:

  • Business Objectives. Does the job assist your company in achieving a primary business goal or is it more focused on a secondary objective?
  • User Groups. Does the task help a primary or secondary user group?
  • User Needs. Does the job help users complete a critical function for them or is it a lower consideration?
  • Effort Level. How hard is it to deliver this job? Will it involve a lot of work?

Notice the balance in my chosen criteria. Two are business focused (objectives and effort level), while two are focused on users. Based on my observations most companies are too focused on business needs and lack more user orientated criteria.

Of course, for that to work, your company will need to undertake some prioritisation. For example, it will need to agree a definitive, prioritised list of business objectives for its digital channels.

You can use its company goals to help establish its objectives for their digital channels.

It will also need to do the same for its user groups, identifying key audiences and prioritising them accordingly.

Finally, for each of those audiences, you will need to identify and prioritise top tasks they wish to complete.

2. Apply Your Points

Once you have done this work, you can start applying points to each category. For example, you can give five points to the most critical user group, four to the second and so on.

Some categories, such as effort will be harder to point, but even a simple one to five rating from easy to hard would help.

It would also be possible to weight a particular category to match business priorities. For example, if the organisation is focusing primarily on user experience, it could weight user needs more than business objectives by giving it a greater points allocation.

Whatever criteria and weighting your company adopt the result will be a single numerical score. That score will determine where the job appears in the stack.

As new jobs come in, they are assessed and then slotted into the appropriate place in the stack.

As new jobs come in, they are assessed and then slotted into the appropriate place in the stack. The consequence of this is that some lower scoring jobs may never make it to the top of the list because better jobs come along that are more beneficial for the business.

This fact is a hard shift in thinking for many organisations to make. It feels unfair because some jobs don’t get their turn. But ultimately it weeds out weaker ideas without the need to outright reject them.

But that is not the only challenge digital triage presents to current thinking.

The Challenges of Digital Triage

Not Committing to Deadlines

Another challenge in thinking digital triage presents is that it does not allow the teams who are working on jobs to commit to specific deadlines. That is very counter to the culture of most organisations that expect digital teams to conform to the schedules of other departments (such as marketing). However, in my experience, it is an adjustment worth making because it encourages a digital-first culture.

Crucially, the stack of projects needs to be visible across the organisation. That will ensure everybody knows what is happening and when it is likely to happen. That will aid in planning and allow other teams to see when a project is expected to get addressed.

People Objecting to Your Pointing

Then, of course, there will be those who object to your assessment of their project. These people will argue you haven’t assigned it enough points or have assigned too many points to items above theirs in the queue.

In such situations, it is helpful to have a committee of some type to arbitrate these disputes. However, try to avoid having this committee point every incoming project as typically committees take an age to decide anything!

The “I Don’t Care” Manager

Finally, there is that senior manager who will swoop in and ignore all your policies and procedures. They will throw their weight around and insist that you move their project to the top of the stack.

In truth, if they are influential enough, there is little you can do to stop that. However, you can make these individuals think twice. I recommend asking them to help you identify where your point system is failing. After all, if they believe their project should be top of the list and the point system is disagreeing it means that the point system is out of line with top-level priorities.

That forces them to either help you improve the point system and adapt it to shifting organisational priorities, or reconsider their position. Either way, digital triage doesn’t get overridden.

But maybe the most significant challenge you envision in all of this is setting up the system in the first place.

Setting Up Digital Triage in Your Company

In reality, getting digital triage off the ground probably won’t be as painful as you might think. People rarely disagree with the principle of having a fair, transparent and consistent approach to prioritising work.

In fact, in most situations, you can get the whole thing up-and-running in a single workshop.

Getting the Right People in the Room

The trick is ensuring the right people are in the room, and that you end up with the right pointing system at the end. Of course, that is easier to say than do.

For a start, you need to get as senior people as possible to attend. The more influential the people who buy into the triage system, the less pushback you are likely to receive later. But getting the time of these people can be challenging.

One approach is to piggy back the workshop on a meeting the senior management team are already having. Run right and with a bit of careful preparation, you can get an agreement in an hour, so you could easily tag it onto another meeting.

Establishing a Good Point System

Ending up with the right pointing system is a little trickier. You will find yourself facing two challenges. First will be getting agreement on the criteria and then second getting agreement on the prioritisation within those criteria.

You will face little resistance to the principle of using business objectives and cost of implementation as criteria, but you may find more opposition to user audiences and needs.

Then, of course, you need to get the group to prioritise those business objectives and audiences. That can often lead to a lot of debate.

I will be honest; it often helps to have an outside voice at this point. Sad though it is, an outside consultant such as myself is often taken more seriously than internal staff, and if I suggest specific approaches, people tend to listen. It shouldn’t be that way, but that is the reason I end up facilitating so many of these sessions?

One suggestion I would make is not to allow things to deteriorate into a debate. Run the session as a series of workshop exercises, rather than a discussion. For example use dot voting to prioritise rather than trying to reach a consensus.

Also, give them some examples as a starting point. Suggest the criteria outlined above or propose a prioritised list of objectives for them to respond to. That will anchor them on your recommendations, and although they will change things, it will end up closer to what you would like to see than if you let them come up with ideas from scratch.

I am aware that this all sounds like a lot of work, but I promise you it is worth the effort.

The Benefits of Digital Triage

I am sure by now the benefits of digital triage are apparent. Getting to work on one project at a time will increase productivity, and a good prioritisation policy will ensure you are working on the right things. But there is another benefit you might not have considered.

I see many digital teams frustrated that they don't have the time to address critical projects because they have no 'client'. For example, many digital teams feel they never have an opportunity to think strategically or create something like a design system.

If you use this digital triage model, there is no reason why you cannot introduce your projects to the stack. Just make sure you assess and prioritise them like any other project.

Digital triage is not perfect, but then no approach is. What it will give you is a way of dealing with complaints and prioritising work that is important. It also puts you in control of the process because you are the one who assesses projects. You are also the one who helped shape the criteria for this assessment. That should at least help you manage projects more sensibly.