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Prioritizing Projects : A Project Manager’s Dilemma
By Carol A Long

In an ideal organization, project managers have an understanding of the organization’s project portfolio and don’t have to prioritize one project over another: it is very clearly led by senior management.

Some methods assume that project teams should only work on one project at once.

There is sometimes an unfortunate reality: the project manager has to make an interim decision on which projects to prioritize. This happens when there is no portfolio management in place. Project schedules (latency for events or other organizations) and efficient resource management sometimes means that a team has to work on more than one project.

If you don’t know where to start, try this. Look at each project in turn asking these questions:

  • Is this something that just must be done to keep the organization legal and viable?
  • How much does this contribute most towards the organizations strategy?
  • How much does this contribute to keeping and satisfying customers?
  • How much does this return for the organization?

These are in order of significance (for most organizations – check your own). This will help you work out an order for priority between the projects. It is not the only way but it may be the start you need.

You’ll also need an understanding of what effort is needed to manage each of the projects.

Now you’ll have an idea about which are the big projects not based on what the budget is or how many people are working on it but based on the impact on the organization.

Look at your resources:

  • Which key resources (including you) are stopping you from doing all the projects on the list?
  • Which resources are flexible?
  • Where can you get more resource if you need it?

Now look at your “big projects” and assign your key resources realistically, flexing the schedules if you have to. When you run out of key resources, you have hit the limit of the projects you can manage. You may be able get some of the free non-key resources to make progress on the other projects but you cannot complete them. Don’t take on any more projects that need these key resources. If you overload them, they will burn out/leave or simply have to delay each project while they work on the project in hand. They may skimp on the work they are doing because they can see the work that is waiting for them. It may harm their productivity if they are switching attention between tasks very often.

If your only restricted key resource is you, identify resources to help you and learn to delegate. Getting an assistant (formal or informal) is a great way to help you develop as a project manager and to protect your projects against your unavailability (holidays, or when 2 projects get busy at once).

Of course, it may be that you can do all the projects but only if you change the plan or deadlines to make it fit. Understand how fixed the deadlines you’ve been given really are and the impact of changing them: that might be enough. Then prioritize at task level based on the impact of any delay on the tasks, which is generally more flexible and efficient.

Now you need to set senior management expectations. Go back to your boss with what you plan to do and what resources you need to do it all. Be ready to negotiate your plan with your boss and look at alternatives but also be realistic and not take on more than you can do: why agree to fail before you’ve started?

© 2011 Carol A Long, All Rights Reserved

Carol A Long is Principal Consultant of Three Triangles Performance Ltd ( based in England providing programme and project management consulting and interim management. Carol specialises in the corporate governance aspects of project management, improving project management practices in organisations, and turnarounds of challenged business critical change and transformation programmes. She has written parts of the international project management standards for professional bodies in USA and Europe. Before founding 3Triangles in 2006, Carol had 21 years experience with multinational organisations in software development, quality improvement and management, and coaching project and programme managers. You can follow Carol on twitter.

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