Using a PMO to Prioritize Your IT Work

With so many jobs to get done and so many different executives pushing their own agendas, how do you prioritize everything? Here's some help.
During client engagements, I routinely encounter organizations struggling with prioritizing work. Business executives are running around screaming that things are hot, people in IT are running around screaming that things are hot. As a result, everyone is trying to do so many ''hot'' things that nothing is getting done -- or at least not efficiently.

There are a few thoughts to bear in mind. First off, there are finite resources and not everything can, or should, be done at once. Secondly, you cannot make everyone happy. And thirdly, trying to do too much at once is a guaranteed recipe for excessive costs, disappointments and outright failure.

There is a way out of this quagmire and that's through the use of a PMO (project management offices) and a prioritization process.

IT exists to help the organization achieve its goal. To do this, IT must either help add value or mitigate risks. The challenge is that an informed and empowered group of stakeholders need to pick the correct mixture of projects to maximize the overall yield to the organization. The best way to begin understanding this opportunity is to look at the world of PMOs and portfolio management.

At issue is the fact that the entire organization -- at all levels and in all departments -- faces an issue with determining what projects to pursue, fund, schedule, and so on.

On one hand, the knee-jerk reaction is to establish a PMO within IT alone. This can only gain a limited amount of benefits because it is too late and too narrowly focused. Effective project management requires planning. The better the visibility to current and upcoming projects across the organization, the better the understanding of resource requirements from the various departments versus. This will help fend off the last-minute, ''Hey, we have a hot project that has been going on for a year and must wrap up next week. Can you have someone buy and configure a server by the end of the week so we can go into production?''

The role of the PMO must be to have not only visibility but also management and oversight functions of all projects across the organization. If there is a need to have PMOs within functional areas, a federated model can be developed wherein the local PMO is in constant communication with the overall PMO. In a centralized model, the PMO employs individuals and teams that specialize in supporting the various functional areas.

With that said, visibility and management requires the prioritization of projects.

The first step is to determine what projects to pursue. This go/no-go decision must be made early in the process to avoid unnecessary resource expenditures. To effectively accomplish this, project requestors must assemble a business case that outlines the need, costs and benefits. On a regular basis, steering committees should meet and review the requests to determine who gets approval to proceed. The decisions must reflect an understanding of the business, the risks involved and so on. Using Return on Investment (ROI) alone isn't the answer. Look at the numbers, the overall business case and alignment with the organization's goal to make the appropriate decisions.

A project with a high return but an unacceptable level of risk should not be funded, whereas something with a lower return and an acceptable level of risk should be considered for approval.

The next step after approval is to sufficiently develop the project plan so the scheduling function can review the project for similarities with other projects; dependencies that may exist; current organizational priorities; current risks, and so on to determine where to best fit the project into the PMO schedule. The ongoing schedule is routinely reviewed with management to ensure priorities are correct.

One idealized goal of project scheduling must be to use as much objective information as possible to schedule work and not succumb to politics and emotion. Prioritization systems that go from ''1, 2, 3'' to ''Hot, 1, 2, 3'' to ''Hot Hot, Hot, 1, 2, 3'' are out of control. As you can imagine, the next step will be to add ''Hot Hot Hot'' as a priority level, and somewhere along the line the prioritization system will utterly collapse and cease to have value.

In addition to the ongoing monitoring of project progress and health, there is a final important element wherein the outcomes of projects are monitored and reported. This eliminates fraudulent claims of costs, benefits and risks set forth by unscrupulous individuals who want to push through projects by supplying false information. Furthermore, this review allows management oversight as to how resources are being deployed and the overall state of project outcomes in the company.

In closing, groups with prioritization issues need to leverage project management offices for visibility, and steering committees to determine what projects to accept or reject. From there the scheduling function looks at the needs of the business overall, the individual characteristics of the projects, including dependencies, and resource requirements, to determine in what order the projects should be pursued. The finalized schedule is then reviewed with management to make sure the needs of the business are being correctly addressed.

In addition to the PMO monitoring the ongoing health of projects, the group's members must be certain to review the final deliverables, costs and benefits of a project to ensure the organization's resources were invested wisely to further the attainment of organizational goals.

Here is some dditional Reading:

  • Program Management Office.
  • Getting a PMO Out of the Gate.
  • Choosing the Wrong Portfolio of Projects.
  • Priori tizing Projects -- What Do You Work On When All Requests Are Urgent?.
  • Six Sigma Project Selection - How Organizations Choose the Most Important Projects.

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