Justifying and Prioritizing Projects

To provide context, let’s define a “project” as it relates to this post: A project is a complex issue, with a defined set of goals, that requires a leader to influence/motivate many others, implement strategy, inspect, and ensure execution.

The vision for an organization is one big project that cascades into other projects and supporting goals, which also have cascading projects that are nested all the way down. The importance of justification and prioritization is critical at every level.

All projects (starting with the highest level vision) must be justified; Similar to culture, they should not just “happen” and there should be some guiding principles/values in place.

Here are some tips on justifying projects:

  1. Challenge, challenge, challenge; The leader should vigorously challenge their own projects/vision during the planning process. The higher level the leader is, the less likely they are to be challenged by others, therefore know that it is appropriate to be hard on yourself when planning. Then ask your peer group to beat you up a bit more; which is all about crisp justification for something that is about to be your obsession for a period of time, and that will impact many (if not all) others in the organization.
  2. When assisting others in justifying their projects: Ensure they have gone through the exercise above by having them answer the following questions:
    1. Why in the heck should we do this?
    2. Is it supported by our overall vision?
    3. What will our measurable(s) be?
    4. If successful, will the results be material?
    5. What happens if the project fails? This should be the last question because the answer(s) will validate importance/justification

In regards to prioritizing projects:

  1. Stack/rank by measurable and the impact of outcomes
  2. No one should have more than 3-5 direct projects at any given time; any excess should be kicked down the list or deleted (if they are important they will resurface)
  3. If there are too many projects for the leaders who are available to manage them, change an input. Either the team/investment needs to grow, or the priorities need to shrink to a manageable level. The key is in justifying the projects first; if there really are more than the team can handle and they have all been justified, grow the team and invest in people and resources at a higher rate.

Leaders who put their employees first, will likely be put first by their employees.

This quote is an original from one of my greatest mentors (Lawton Langford).  He has impacted me in so many positive ways, and I am thankful that what he has focused on most has been leadership development.

Decision making is easy if the focus is on what is best for you, your department, your business, your family, etc., without considering and highly valuing the impact on other people, organizations, and/or things. The harder, yet more rewarding route is the leadership track which consists of being self-aware, thoughtful, long-term growth oriented, committed to fostering a great culture, and prioritizing the well being and growth of others.   We all place a high value on trust, being included, and being cared for; The only way for these to be characteristics of an organization’s culture is for leaders to put their people first.  If our actions are aligned with this concept, the actions of our team will be aligned with doing all that is required for continuous success.

“The best led organizations celebrate their forecasts rather than financial statements, because they are that far ahead of the data, decision making, and planning”

At worst, we should only be making educated guesses when making decisions about our future.   “Educated” means we have gathered every inflection point that is practical, reflected on our experience, and have had discussions with mentors and the right team members.   There are no absolutes in regards to if you do x, y will happen.  However, if we use all the resources and brain power available to us, we can drastically effect the probability of a successful outcome.

The first step is to know our mission and what success looks like.  Without this, who cares…. The next step is to track key metrics that will provide the data needed for historical review and trending purposes.    The best run organizations are extremely self-aware because of consistently tracking the right metrics (which they add to as the organization changes/grows).   They understand and expect at any given time there are things that are going well and things that are going poorly.   There is always something to improve and the sooner we know it, the less likely it is to have a negative impact on the things that are performing well.   If we are aware we can make the changes necessary to allow for continuous growth.  If we fail to do this, we are just chasing the bad things when they finally slap us in the face and never have time to focus on making the great things greater.

Once the organization is consistently tracking and reviewing the most important metrics, there is a real ability to forecast the future and to plan for future growth, in an educated way.   Every organization has Financial Statements, again…….who cares?   The best lead organizations already know how their financials are going to look before they are produced.

The best led organizations celebrate their pipeline and their forecasts, because they are that far ahead of the data, decision-making, and planning.

“Without a plan, direction is irrelevant”

A primary role of a leader is to be a visionary and to help their team with the most strategic initiatives.   However, it is a dis-service to the team if they are not encouraged/allowed to develop plans and potential solutions prior asking leadership for direction.

One of my best friends who also subscribes to these leadership posts sent me the following quote from the Alice in Wonderland Book:

“Alice came to a fork in the road. 

‘Which road do I take?’ she asked.

‘Where do you want to go?’ responded the Cheshire Cat.

‘I don’t know,’ Alice answered.

‘Then,’ said the Cat, ‘it doesn’t matter.” 

I rarely use quotes from other sources, but I could find no better way to get the point across.  How can Leaders help someone if they have yet to think through a solution/plan for what they are presenting as an opportunity or a problem?  When someone asks for direction, the first question to ask is what they think the solution is.   By doing this leaders are empowering the team to think strategically, grow, and to become the future leaders of the organization.  If this is not being done, it is really a one person show where the leader is the bottleneck to growth.   Everyone benefits when leaders have the discipline to help at the right time and to require thinking and planning as a prerequisite.

“Are you behind the opportunity, or are you just behind?”

Whether it is raising children, leading a team of people, correcting a big issue, selling something, etc., the best position we can have is as the leader. As leaders we should be doing all the extra-mile work required to build the path rather than reacting to it. Being behind (reacting) is the worst position because even if you succeed, it is on someone else’s terms, and those achievements often turn into failures.

It is also a leader’s responsibility to have self-awareness and know if they are leading, or if they are just behind. The issue/opportunity may still need to be addressed, but having self-awareness allows us to consciously design our approach based on how we are positioned. The highest level of failure is derived from being behind (reactive), yet still approaching the situation as if we were truly leading from the beginning. It turns the other side off, wastes a tremendous amount of time, and demotivates the team. So if we are pursuing something that we are having to chase, the first thing to do is to know and understand our position, and then consciously decide if/how to continue.

“Let’s not make it the other person’s duty to adjust their personality in order for us to hear them”

We must adjust our listening and reaction based on who is delivering the message, their personality, and their perception of us. There is always some level of opportunity in the feedback a leader receives from those on their team. How much opportunity and if it is worth acting on is typically determined based on the delivery of the message, rather than who delivers it. Only acting on messages that are delivered from the most outspoken team members, and delivered with a high level of intensity, is an easy mistake to make.

Our leadership skills should be tuned to the highest level when we receive unsolicited feedback – similar to a squelch knob (I am from the south and had/have a CB radio) to adjust for static. The knob needs to be adjusted based on who is giving us the feedback, and it really needs to be fine tuned when those that rarely give us feedback speak up. If we treat them the same as those that frequent our office and have a more intense personality, we will dismiss their feedback because it does not seem urgent/important. But if we take the time to think about their personality and how they typically interact with us, and then compare it to the feedback they are providing, the message may end being much more important than the same message being delivered from someone that frequently provides feedback and does so with much more intensity.

Some people tend to speak less, and expect to be listened to more. They may not project a high-level of intensity even if they have a strong conviction about the subject. They may also have the perception that the leader will determine if it is really important enough to make a change/take action, and that it is not their place to push hard one way or another. This is all about their personality and their perception of how the other side will/should react.

So when those that do not speak up often offer their feedback – Adjust your squelch knob, ask more questions, and investigate more so than you normally would.   The adjustment is typically well worth it, and also demotivating if we do not adapt to each persons style of providing feedback.

“Key decisions should not be made in the absence of supporting metrics”

All organizations should plan, execute, monitor performance, adjust,……..plan, execute, monitor performance, adjust,………repeat, repeat, repeat. Each one of these steps should incorporate performance metrics.   Performance metrics are typically quantitative data sets, that are based on key indicators (what is important/key is different for each organization).  Key decisions should not be made solely on objective data, but they should never without validating against the organizations performance metrics.   Also, not having performance metrics (the data) is not an excuse, it is merely an admission that the data needs to be created and tracked moving forward.

Growth oriented organizations track their performance, and what is being tracked continues to evolve so that decision-making is more objective and brisk.  When we understand what success looks like, and how we are doing comparatively, we are able to make decisions quickly and with greater accuracy.   There is always a portion of our decision that is based on gut-feel, and we want that portion to be the tipping point rather than the basis for the decision.  We may have the gut-feeling that we need to do something, but we need the supporting data to determine what that something is, and how we will move forward.  Once we have the data, the gut-feel still plays a part in moving forward with the decision.  There are many benefits of using support metrics in our decision-making process:

  • More timely decisions:   We have the “feeling” it is time to hire an additional resource.   Once we look into the supporting data we realize that business has in fact increased, but while it looks sustainable, we still need to see more of an increase before moving forward.   We decide to wait because we believe if the business activity continues to increase, the additional hire will be financially feasible and the probability of long-term employment will be higher.
  • Objective data is hard to argue with:  Strong disagreements and emotions are present when decisions are being made primarily on subjective data.   When there is a disagreement, people feel they are right and we are wrong; they may even lose confidence in your decision-making going forward.  If this happens, it is the fault of the leader for not requiring a more disciplined and objective approach to decision-making.  With objective data, there is more common ground, and the approach is more sensible when the subjectivity is coupled with strong objective data.
  • Discovery of inefficiencies:   While the data may tell us that we need to do something, often times what needs to be done is different from what was originally proposed.   Examples:  Do we need more people on the team, or do we need a different process?   Do we need that new system, or do we just need people to fully understand what is required of them?  Do we need to invest more in that program, or do we need to divest ourselves of it because it is not growing fast enough?  Sometimes when a team member approaches us and says, we really need to do “this”, we end up determining that something needs to be done – but after looking at the data together we determine that what is needed is totally different from what was initially proposed.
  • Sustainable Growth:  Every bad decision negatively impacts growth.  A focus on objective data helps us increase the probability of making good quality decisions that promote consistent growth.

Take a look at the organizations/people who are consistently successful.  How do they make decisions?  They are not just “lucky”.  People and businesses make bad decisions when objective (the facts) data is ignored.  The “I want”, “I feel”, “We should have that because they do”, “This will solve everything”, kind of comment is subjective (an opinion). This subjective data is not necessarily bad, as long as it is weighed against the objective and factual data of what is really going on.