A Black-and-White Prioritization Process: Quick and Uncomplicated

First, a common definition of success: IT initiative prioritization is a mechanism to calendarize and budgetize investments in IT, which is agreed upon by all stakeholders. This is a stretch goal for most organizations. In fact, some may argue that achieving a consensus among all stakeholders is not possible. But the only way to increase IT’s effectiveness is to drive consensus on how to use limited resources to achieve the most critical outcomes.

Too often, subjective factors such as internal politics, gut feelings, and competitors’ actions sneak into our decision making efforts. Coming up with a black-and-white prioritization process may seem complex and time-consuming. In reality, it is not all that much work.

After 25 years in IT, I have learned that the following 5 success factors drastically improve the process of prioritizing IT initiatives:

  1. Proper Participation
  2. Clear Guiding Principles
  3. Transparency
  4. Complete Inventory
  5. Feasibility Analysis

Let’s briefly explore each element.

1. Proper Participation

Decision Makers. Naturally, participation from decision makers is critical. However, considering the scarcity of their time, they are often presented only with final recommendations. The truth is, they don’t like that. Decision makers like to make decisions. The least you can do at that executive governance meeting (the one that took weeks to put together, and then was postponed twice) is to offer two or three alternatives. Make sure to let them know what you think is best, but let them decide.

Influencers. Frequently omitted from the prioritization process, influencers need an opportunity to contribute or they will not support the selected initiatives. They will always come up with new ideas or objections. Collecting input from influencers, and validating recommendations with them prior to a decision-making meeting, is time well spent.

Both decision makers and influencers play a dual role in the prioritization process—they give input and take on action items. A sample of the inputs and actions required from participants are as follows:

Decision Makers
  • Strategy clarification
  • Budgetary considerations
  • Agree to guiding principals
  • Select and approve a subset of top initiatives
  • Allocate time and budget for selected initiatives
  • Hold or de-prioritize initiatives previously agreed upon
  • Influencers
  • Ideas and new opportunities
  • Scoring for each initiative
  • Advise decision makers
  • Solicit ideas from a broader audience
  • Abide by guiding principals and chosen priorities
  • 2. Clear Guiding Principles

    The first thing you want to do before making any decisions about allocating budget and resources is to agree upon what criteria will be used in prioritization. Any adjustments to the rules of the game during half-time is too disruptive and disheartening. An initial meeting for decision makers to agree upon the selection criteria is critical. It takes interference out of the process, making it more transparent and less time-consuming.

    Guiding principles simply list the criteria that will be used for prioritization, such as ROI, strategic fit, interdependencies, risk of doing, risk of not doing, etc. Once those are agreed-upon, you can objectively score each initiative.

    3. Transparency

    While I believe that labeling all IT folks as “introverts” is unfair, they do tend to hold information close to the chest. (Frankly, so do other departments.) With regard to IT initiative prioritization, tell the entire organization about it, when it’s happening, what the guiding principles are, and that you need everyone’s support. This way, if and when new ideas surface after prioritization is finalized, you can gently remind the “innovator” that the window of opportunity to reprioritize is closed, and to stay tuned for the next prioritization season.

    4. Complete Inventory

    It is a sad fact that a large number of IT prioritization meetings turn into ideation workshops, where participants from the business come up with new ideas and demands. It is even worse when they agree to a set of priorities in the meeting, and later sabotage the process by inserting new “urgent” (or better yet “strategic”) initiatives into the schedule.

    Homework is key here. You want to make sure you hear every influencer and include all of their ideas in the backlog of IT initiatives. This process carries two critical benefits:

    • Influencers become supporters because you asked for their opinion
    • Monday morning quarterbacking is squelched, and influencers stick to agreed-upon priorities

    5. Feasibility Analysis

    The final step before the prioritization meeting is to develop an idea of the cost, internal resource requirements, risks, and other feasibility parameters associated with the IT initiatives. The decision makers will inevitably ask. You don’t need to be precise, but a ballpark estimate is a must.

    Tip: Test Drive the Prioritization Process on a Small Scale

    Introducing all of the above changes to the overall IT governance function may be too much at once. To build a case for a better prioritization process we suggest trying it out on one segment of IT activities. For example, apply it to a CRM continuous improvement program. Here’s why this works:

    • Decision-makers and influencers will be fewer and easier to identify.
    • Guiding principles will be simpler as they only relate to one or two departments.
    • Transparency will be easier to achieve with a smaller audience.
    • A complete inventory of improvement ideas will take less time to solicit from a handful of influencers.
    • Efforts will be easier to estimate because they will be in a discrete technology space.

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