Published July 2, 2023
Stop the domino effect of failing projects caused by competing priorities.
Departments and managers bring up new initiatives and project ideas that are supposed to make a company grow. Due to market urgency, stakeholder influence, and shortsighted management, companies end up launching too many initiatives, resulting in multiple initiatives competing for priority.
Competing priorities are a slow-acting poison. The damage does not occur at one blow, but spreads continuously through organizations. Decisions get delayed, projects miss deadlines and employees get so demotivated that their performance drops through the floor. Stakeholders lose trust and engage in behavior that fosters stalemate situations. Research has shown that with a rising number of priorities, a company's growth declines .
With our handbook consisting of 5 approaches, 5 tips, and FAQ you will be able to prevent conflicting priorities, secure your companies productivity and employee motivation, and maintain and strengthen your reputation with stakeholders.
Conflicting priorities are a common occurrence. Different teams and stakeholders have their own objectives, timelines, and resource constraints. Therefore, everyone has their own perspective on priorities. That is nothing bad. It is a natural and healthy sign because you want people to take responsibility for their department goals and to set a certain focus to reach these goals. However, once everything comes together and starts competing for resources in your organization, all these priorities will clash. This clash of priorities creates confusion, slows down progress, and hinders overall project success. With each team pulling in a different direction, the result is an exhausting stalemate, potentially stopping your whole organization from moving forward.
When conflicting priorities are left unaddressed, the consequences can be severe. The organization's productivity decreases quietly, and that damage will go a long way before it gets noticed. People in your organization who are affected by competing priorities, but have no competence to resolve them, will mitigate that issue by somehow trying to work around it, resulting in non-effective work and sitting out when the situation is unclear. Why is this the most likely to happen? Because it's the path of least resistance. At worst, this way of working will be accepted by everyone as the status quo because no one will bother to address the problem. When this state is reached in an organization, the organization is already working far below its potential productivity and will be wasting a significant amount of resources.
Those are the negative consequences you will gradually start to notice:
What matters most, is that teams are in a state, in which they can take action instead of being blocked: teams have to know, which project is the one to be approached first, and which project trumps the other project when there is a resource conflict, and what the proportion of time commitment is between these projects.
The following approaches help to resolve competing priorities and to avoid them before they occur.
You might be in an environment in which priorities keep changing often because someone sets new priorities regularly. One of the most effective tools when it comes to managing that, is the ability to say 'no' in the right moment. Often changing priorities will lead to many more problems down the road. You should reject new priorities and openly raise the problem within your organization. People that introduce or change the priorities might not be aware of the troubles and priority conflicts this is causing.
After you have stopped the uncontrolled leaking of new priorities, you must make sure that incoming priorities follow a process. For that, you need to establish a framework. The framework must generate priorities systematically, which means it must be objectively comprehensible to an observer why an initiative has become a priority - without requiring deep background knowledge about the initiative from the observer. Your organization will benefit the most if the reasons behind priorities are transparent, so try to make transparency part of the framework. That way, priorities will not only be less likely to conflict, but team members will also have a better chance to gain an understanding for priorities, and will be also more understanding of subsequent changes of priorities, even when they do not favour them. Thereby you keep your teams motivation up and help your organization to focus on executing instead of being caught up in circles of questioning the relevance of projects.
In some situations your priorities conflict because you cannot clearly decide which initiative is the more important one. You can ask yourself: what knowledge am I missing to resolve several equally important priorities? What new information would definitively make our organization prefer one project over the other? The more accurately you can phrase the problem (what knowledge is missing), the easier you will know what the solution is to gather that information and what the associated cost of gathering the information is. There are some projects for which you just need to gather data upfront and invest research time before you can decide on the priority. Dedicate some extra time to that research; if necessary create a separate task or project dedicated to the research, so that it is obvious that the research process is something that has cost to your organization because it requires resources of your team.
Many times you can’t realistically gather accurate data without investing too much time. Then you must force rank things. Be clear about the company's strategic direction, and bring the conflicting items in a unique order based on their suitability to fulfill strategic goals. Force ranking helps you to make a quick decision based on what you know about the strategic fit, the currently available resources, and the urgency of each item. If you can’t forecast which item is better regarding that criteria, don’t try to make it perfect, instead make a choice that allows you to take action. On occasion, your management might present you with a list of things that need to be implemented, and all the items on that list will be portrayed as equally important. Forced ranking can help you to "untangle the equal importance". Ask the person who provided the list to put the things in a meaningful order by doing forced ranking, and assist if necessary. You own the result - so by offering assistance early on, you not only help them, but you also make your own life easier.
Different departments and stakeholders often compete for resources. As each stakeholder has their own perspective, it is easy for a stakeholder to forget that the overall capacity of resources is too limited to work on everything at once. You have to find a way to properly manage expectations by making stakeholders aware of that. One way is to involve stakeholders right from the beginning. Let them know which priorities they compete against by showing them all ongoing/planned initiatives. When you gather requirements or projects from stakeholders, do not accept unsorted lists. Instead, ask stakeholders to rank their projects in order. Point out that this helps you to address their needs better because you can focus on their most urgent and important projects, which in turn will benefit them the most.
These tips will ease the application of the beforehand mentioned approaches.
Use strategic goals as a North Star
Use strategic goals as your organization's North Star for setting priorities. They provide clarity and alignment, and help you make the right decision when you must make trade-offs. Don't forget to remind your team of these goals so they develop a greater understanding for selected initiatives.
Rally people behind priorities
You don't have to please everyone, and you shouldn't, as it's not possible. However, as your employees gain a better understanding, they will be more motivated and you will spend less time justifying priorities. Your organization will spend more time executing and delivering better results because employees will have a deeper sense of the significance of their work.
Foster "ruthless prioritization" mentality
Don't accept ambiguous priorities or a lack of clarity. Fighting ambiguity is hard, but it will be even harder to resolve people running in different directions later on. Working on things with ambiguous priorities will quietly drain everyone's energy and result in low performance. Ruthless prioritization creates space for the things that really matter by unburdening your team.
Take concerns seriously
By caring about your team's concerns, you mitigate the risk of unaddressed issues escalating into larger problems that could hinder progress or damage relationships. Taking ten minutes right away to address a concern can save you from wasting many hours or days later on, as well as save you from an unnoticed loss of efficiency due to low morale.
Don't starve stakeholders
Good stakeholder relationships are important. Balancing priorities will rarely be 100% fair to everyone because too many factors are decisive. However, you want stakeholders to feel a sense of fairness to build mutual trust. If you have stakeholders that you couldn't consider for a long time because other priorities were more important, make sure not to neglect them over a long period. Create some space to address their needs as well. Thereby you will avoid dissatisfaction and maintain a positive relationship.
Summary: memorize these tips and consider them in every phase, from setting priorities to justifying them:
How to avoid competing priorities before they occur?
Use a systematic decision-making framework. Reject priorities that just leak in without coming in through a process. Manage stakeholder expectations: Make sure it is transparent to all stakeholders in your organization what projects your departments are working on so that everyone understands that capacities are already occupied and triage is required for any new initiatives.
How to resolve competing priorities if they already exist?
Write down all current and new initiatives. Rank them according to their importance. If you got multiple projects that have to be realized at the same time by the same team, set proportions that guide the team on what percentage of their time they should devote to a project.
How to decide on the highest priority?
If you have clashing priorities from different stakeholders, use a group-based forced ranking approach.
If you have little knowledge and data available, or very limited time constraints, use a forced ranking method.
If you have knowledge about the initiatives (such as impact, cost, risk) that you can express in relative values, use a criteria-based decision matrix to rank priorities.
What tools exist to manage conflicting priorities?
Prioneer.io is a tool created by product managers for managing competing priorities between multiple stakeholders. It brings all of your organization's priorities into a clear order, ranked from most important to least important. Prioneer also detects when priorities clash due to misunderstandings within your team, and thereby helps you to clarify them and move in the same direction.
Unclear priorities are a threat to any organization's productivity. The more a company wants to grow, the more prone it is to a clash of priorities due to the number of initiatives that will be brought forward. Managing them is necessary to avoid loss of productivity, people's motivation and trust of stakeholders. With the five approaches and five tips presented in this handbook you can avoid that initiatives compete uncontrollably for priority and help teams to gain back their efficiency through decisiveness, clear focus and aligned direction.
See how easy it is with our interactive pairwise comparison tool. No more fiddling with spreadsheets. Multiple criteria, collaborative decisions, slide export, and much more.