Preventing IT Program Failure, Part 2: True Prioritization

This is the second in a six-part series on how to prevent failure and accelerate outcomes.

In emergency rooms, disasters and wars, limited medical resources are allocated to maximize the number of survivors. In IT units, limited resources should be allocated to maximize the outcomes that will be most valuable to the company.

“If you chase two rabbits, you will not catch either one.” Russian proverb

Unfortunately most organizations do not triage or prioritize in order to maximize successful programs. More often, resources (people, time, money) are spread in a thin, uneven layer over too many projects, resulting in less delivery and more delays. It’s more effective to have a few priority programs done swiftly and delivering exactly what is needed – and then move on to the next priorities. On any given day, valuable talent should be working on programs that deliver or strongly support new or improved products and services for which:

  • Customers will pay
  • Existing customers will beel incented to remain customers
  • Customers will be comfortable promoting your products to others

If you are in an organization for which “too many projects, never enough time” is the persistent reality, a simple inventory exercise can focus leaders’ attention on the often absurd amount of programs that have little to no chance of successful completion. Inventories do not need to be lengthy or complex – just use existing data like project name, original start & end date vs. current estimated end date, business unit, budget, # of FTEs (employees and consultants) allocated. A thirty minute agenda item in a regularly scheduled leadership meeting should be sufficient. The objective should be to align the C-suite on a call to action to start true prioritization.

  1. Point out the ratio of IT FTEs to projects. Recently, in a company of about 100 IT FTE, there were 210 projects. That’s less than ½ a person per project. The leaders were shocked; they knew this math didn’t work out. Yet one or more leaders reviewed and approved most of the projects.
  2. Show the “long tail” of projects. Typically, everyone knows about the top 5-10 projects, the big dollar, board-level approval projects. However, usually the bottom 70-80% of projects are costing more collectively than the big-name projects. Leaders often don’t realize the collective amount of time and money spent on projects that are not of paramount concern to the company.

A common root cause of too many projects is the feeling that every unit in the company needs to get a “fair share” of new technology functions or products. Being seemingly “fair” to everyone becomes unfair when delays and frustration occur. Savvy employees realize that achieving a handful of valuable projects is better for everyone that middling or no achievement of dozens of projects.  Leaders need to aggressively prioritize – there should be no more than a handful of projects at any one time.

Which brings us to a second useful exercise, a work session to jump start changing the IT mindset and moving towards true prioritization.

  1. Schedule the IT senior people for a morning or afternoon including Directors, Managers, and high level technical roles like Enterprise Architects. (The CIO only needs to come in near the end.)
  2. Secretly, prior to the work session, work with 2-3 business people  – business people who work with real customers. Help them write persona definitions of their external customers and describe the things that the customers love, hate or are neutral about. If you can, it’s helpful to work to get survey data or real customer feedback. (The CIO will need to be in the loop on this, but work session attendees should not be told – yes, it’s subterfuge but will be worth it.)
  3. At the beginning of the work session, split the IT attendees up into groups of 5 – 8; it’s best if each group is a mix of managers and individual contributors.
  4. Go through a series of iterative exercise of getting to three (yes, THREE) priority programs & the outcome of those programs, starting with the small groups, and gradually coaching the entire group to identify the top 3. Re-use the inventory in the first exercise wih the leaders. Also, keep track of all the programs put forth, whether they make it to the top 3 or not.
  5. Once the group is surveying the top 3, bring in the business people in and ask if they, as customers, would pay for those three programs & the related output. They should explain why or why not to the group. That’s when it gets interesting.
  6. Bring the CIO in, and create the next steps to build upon the “shock” that’s been created.

These two exercises are a quick way to get attention on true prioritization. True prioritization is not about new strategy and planning techniques, it’s about culture and mindset shift to be relentless about only working on projects that translate into new or improved products and services for which customers will pay, stay, or promote your products to others.

True prioritization is an initial step in preventing failure and accelerating delivery. In upcoming parts 3, 4, 5 and 6, we’ll get into techniques on refinement and delivery of prioritized projects.

Next up in part 3: Broad planning and assessment is actually the enemy!

Worth considering: 

The risk of cyber attack has increased given the geo-political events of early 2020, and any business could be affected. In 2014, an Iranian cyber attack cost the Sands Casino $40 million.

As 2019 turned into 2020, plenty of of technology predictions were made. It’s just as important to know what’s not ready for IT prime time as what is. This article points to information on what trends aren’t yet mature enough for 2020.


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