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Christmas in July: Checklist for Prioritizing IT Projects

Ten days down, and now only two more to go in this year’s Christmas in July campaign. For those who are just joining us, we are nearing the end of our sprint to bring you 12 new pieces of inspirational ServiceNow content, from new eBooks and PPT decks to videos and case studies. Our most popular pieces so far have been; 

For our second to last day we’re asking: How are you preparing your IT team to make the best business decisions to end what has been a year defined by twists and turns?  

While many companies are scrambling to find creative ways to end the year strong, we’re here to remind you that returning to your basic processes and spending the time to optimize those functions is the most reliable and straightforward way to gain stability for your business. And what department is more foundational to your business’ digital success that IT?  

As most organizations look to navigate the remainder of 2020 with reduced resources, a thoughtful framework to compare IT project proposals and priorities has never been more crucial. Without a set framework, your team opens the door to a variety of issues: lack of visibility, unpredictable timelines, and biased decisions.  

Alternatively, taking the time to outline and implement a clear procedureenables IT teams to easily compare proposals amongst each other and with existing projects so that they can make well-informed recommendations to business leaders.   

For the companies that already have a process in place, many have subjective or unfamiliar evaluation methods. This results in major setbacks and unfair or unproductive decision making. If your team doesn’t know how IT is scoring project proposals, how can you expect business members to put their best foot forward when submitting their ideas? And the problem doesn’t stop there. In addition to short-changing the people proposing ideas, not publicizing evaluation methods also puts your leadership team at a disadvantage by not providing them with enough information to properly scope proposals. In fact, according to Gartner, poor initial scope is cited as the most significant factor for projects being late, over budget, or cancelled.  

 For today’s blog, we’ve created a checklist that outlines both practical and immediate steps that you can take to start effectively prioritizing your IT projects today. No matter the maturity of your organization, these points are sure to bring value and organization to your team.   

While on first glance it may seem complicated, in actuality, creating a streamlined process for prioritizing IT demand is right within your reach. Use the following steps to cut through the noise and ensure your team achieves its greatest possible value on all its IT projects. 

Prioritizing IT Demands 

Establish a Single Review Process of IT Project Proposals. 

With one entry point and review process, your organization can increase visibility and reduce overall time and effort invested throughout the review timeline. This approach provides multiple review points to ensure your team is exclusively approving projects that strategically align with your business and have the appropriate resources.  

In addition to implementing a single point of intake for project proposals, your organization should adopt a clear vetting process for submitted proposals. The following section of today’s blog will walk through the several recommended steps to properly vet IT project proposals. By using this multi-step approach, you can save your team both time and effort by properly vetting projects through a tiered funnel.   

Whether or not you follow the process outlined below, keep in mind that your PPM function should continually serve as the single point of entry and review for all proposals that enter your funnel; it’s their role to read through proposals and assess a request before the company spends any resources (i.e. time, money, effort and people) 

Helpful tip: Your PPM function should invest time in facilitating peer reviews and helping business partners develop proposal ideas. Peer reviews are a great way to identify collaboration opportunities and improve proposals before they are submitted. 

So, how does this process begin? 

1. Start with a Concept Proposal. Many organizations jump headfirst into proposing projects by drafting lengthy descriptions or business cases without first getting any sort of initial approval or review. This may appear to save time by getting the ball rolling early-on, but it usually backfires. After business partners spend great lengths of time and effort to write a business case, many PMO’s or PPM functions feel pressure to approve the proposal, rather than reject it and belittle the time already invested in the proposal.  

Instead, start with a one or two-page document that provides a high-level overview of the project. This overview should center on the proposed business change and the value it will deliver to the company. While this shouldn’t take a week to build out and should remain straightforward, make sure to include enough details to allow the review team to vet it against other proposals.  

When it comes to getting past this stage, your proposal should explain how your project:  

  • Aligns with current strategic business initiative(s).  
  • Delivers value. 
  • Enhances a key business process.
  • Drives innovation.

 For this first step, the single point of entry will sort through all of the concept proposals and decide which to reject and which to move forward onto the next stage. This centralization of the initial review process streamlines the timeline and provides more visibility to each of the approval process’ substages. 

2. Submit a Business Case. Once you get the initial thumbs up from the PMO to move forward, the next step is to meet with the sponsoring org and investment review board to elaborate on your proposal.  

This step provides the PMO with more information, such as resources needed for the project, estimated budget, business value provided, and outcomes for the proposal. In this second round of reviews, the proposal still has no guarantee of funding nor resources, but you’re one step closer to getting your project in front of the leadership team.  

This writeup informs the PMO and their decision on whether or not the proposed idea is worth investing the time it takes to draft and present a Project Investment Plan.  

Helpful Tip: It’s best practice to establish clear rules for your organization’s business cases. For example, you may want to set a limit to how much time a project can remain in this stage and a max page count for written business cases.   

3. Complete a Project Investment Plan. By this point in the review process, all ideas have been vetted and proven to have clear benefits and value. The next step, which is often missed, is to review the proposal and ensure it is better than processes/projects that are already in place.  

In other words, the intake process should include a mechanism to measure against other current projects. This third step is key, yet many organizations skip checking this box. Focused intently on collecting all of the good ideas from their team, many organizations then forget their due diligence to properly vet them to ensure the new proposals supersede projects that are already running.  

With a detailed review and vetting step, your organization makes more space to determine which initiatives move onward, and subsequently, which projects are stopped to make rooms for the new ones. By missing this step, organizations can inadvertently create more demand and challenges with prioritization. 

At this stage, ask the following questions to ensure your team is reviewing proposals as objectively and thoughtfully as possible:  

  • What are the short-term and long-term effects to our organization if we approve this initiative?  
  • What other projects are we running that would compete for the same resources? Do we have the capacity to run the two projects simultaneously or must we pick between them? 
  • Is this project’s timeline urgent? Can it be pushed back at all to prioritize more time-sensitive initiatives?  

The proposals that get the thumbs at this stage then officially enter the pipeline of approved projects, moving from demand management into project prioritization and portfolio management.  

Create an Objective Scoring Framework For your Project Portfolio. 

Your IT department juggles many responsibilities, all of which create value for your organization. But you can’t expect your IT team to deliver strategic business results without first explicitly defining business initiatives and clear goals for them. Without these, you’re leaving your IT team to score projects subjectively and prioritize the project portfolio in the dark.  

 To avoid this, your organization must define a set of investment categories so that the IT team can compare and prioritize between investment opportunities using standardized evaluation criteria set in place by your organization. Again, transparency is key. Your team must all be aware of the defined categories and structures to guarantee the decision-making process remains objective and consistent across the pipeline.   

Consider the following when creating your framework:  

  • Keep it straightforwardIt’s best to keep your framework between three and seven categories. Try to include more categories than that and you risk losing focus. Capping the number of categories in your framework will keep your IT team on track, making it easier for them to assess, compare and contrast competing proposals.   
  • Make sure you can quantifiably and quantitatively compare project proposals. The purpose of this framework is to provide organization and enable better decision-making. In order to accomplish both these goals, your framework must exist in a format that makes it easy to compare and prioritize projects across different categories based on attributes such as; type of value-added, level of risk, resources needed and organizational impact. The more detail you can provide in this stage, the easier prioritization will be.  
  • These categories are meant to last. While your business’ needs, direction and strategies will shift during the next few years, your selected categories for this framework should stand the test of time. Rather than changing your categories every few quarters, target spending and weighing of scoring criteria for each category can fluctuate in response to changing business needs. Aim and plan to keep your framework categories in place for multiple years.  

Add Analysis and Recommendations. 

Any projects that have made it this far are strong ideas, but now comes the challenge of picking between them. A lot of information is provided about a project throughout the previous steps, and by this point, your IT team should add their own thoughts and perspectives to compliment the project plan. By adding their own analysis and recommendations rather than simply presenting projects as they’ve originally been submitted, your IT team will further enable and streamline the decision-making process for business leaders.   

In many cases, the decision-making process ultimately comes down to resources. You don’t have the money or staff to complete all the projects in your portfolio, so you have to narrow them down. In this case, it’s helpful to have an analysis of a project and its competing projects (projects that require the same limited resources), or additional qualitative opinions from the PMO.  

When it does finally come time for the decision makers to meet, there should be no more active evaluation. In other words, when they sit down to review the portfolio and recommendations, the group should have all possible insights and data about every project so that they are best positioned to make the most informed decision possible. It’s the job of the PMO to analyze the portfolio and make recommendations to the decision makers, then the decision makers use the insights provided to make a final call.  

Set Clear Expectations for a Plan of Action.

After you prioritize projects based on feasibility (ie. Available resources and current business priorities), it’s important to decide which of the projects you plan to actualize. From here, your organization must still decide which of the projects are achievable, and which will simply remain on the prioritized list of projects.  

By communicating with the leadership team what is realistically achievable for IT, your team will set clear expectations and a standard of open communication. It’s critical for IT to share what is a realistic and achievable set of work it can be held responsible for executing so that the rest of the organization can set their expectations and align accordingly.   

Start by drawing a line to separate your achievable portfolio from the rest of a prioritized pipeline of projects; we call this your ‘achievable project portfolio’. Once you have this list of projects, it’s time to create and commit to a plan for completing them. Remember to save the other projects in your pipeline that didn’t make it onto your achievable project portfolio to revisit later.   

If your team already has an established IT prioritization process, you may want to consider optimizing it with automation. Using a tool to automate this process (or parts of it) can help with ease of administration, sharing of information and data, and identifying redundant projects in the pipeline. You can also apply algorithms to assist with the recommendation process  

There are many PPM software tools on the market to help with demand and prioritization, but it’s important to have a solid base in your process (and how your people use it) before adopting a tool. Keep in mind that process maturity is a key factor in a successful PPM tool adoption and by starting with the basics outlined above, you can set your team up for success further down the road when your prioritization system is more mature.  

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