Critical Action Planning – Seven Keys To Prioritizing the Task Backlog

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New day, new data, new priorities. Like all Agile approaches, overall project execution is optimized when the highest priority tasks are performed in each “Select-Perform-Assess” cycle. So great project performance depends on great prioritization.

The project manager should expect to spend significant time every week re-prioritizing the Project Backlog, with the help of the team, incorporating project learnings and new information from the outside world into the existing project plan.

I’ve identified seven keys to Project Task prioritization, which actually can be used with any type of project management. For example, while dependencies in Gantt charts create a natural sequence of many project tasks, Gantts provide no prioritization when multiple tasks are ready to be started.

While perfection is surely the enemy of the good when it comes to task prioritization, an analytical approach can reduce errors and help the team achieve consensus on priorities. Here are the seven keys I recommend.

1. Get Long Lead Items on Order And Make Sure You Are Ready For New Items When They Arrive

Getting long lead items on order is always a priority. There are usually lots of tasks needed to get the orders placed: completing drawings, identifying vendors, getting quotes, negotiating orders, and getting the PO approved. These tasks should be relatively easy to identify and up-prioritize. Getting orders placed is always harder than it looks. Smart Project Managers stay on top of these tasks to keep them on track.

While getting orders placed is critical, there is nothing worse than having long lead parts in-house, sitting in inventory waiting for some other task to be done. Get inspection plans and resources in place. Get assembly drawings and procedures in place to build new parts into prototypes. Get test protocols in place. Savvy Project Managers prioritize to be ready for long lead item arrival.

2. Work On The Current Product Development Phase, But Watch Out for Long Lead Items

I’ve already recommended that new product development (NPD) Project Plans should be organized by NPD project phase, to help the team focus on current phase Project Tasks.

There are often natural timeline-based task groupings within phases. As an example, in our development phase, we usually plan a set of “pre-design verification tests” in which we build alpha development prototypes and test the highest risk product requirements. Any task needed to begin “pre-DV” is prioritized above subsequent tasks.

One common exception to the “work on the current phase” is ordering long lead items for subsequent phases. Ordering “at risk” is always worth consideration.

3. Reduce the Largest Product Risks First

At the beginning of an NPD phase, you might have several long lead items to get on order. Later, you may have several pre-DV tests to execute. Which first? Let product risk help you decide. For each NPD project we make a Product Risk Register, identifying all Product Risks and ranking them by difficulty of attaining the desired specs. All other things being equal, tasks that address the largest risks should have the highest priority. As Project Tasks are performed, Product Risks are (usually) reduced, so we regularly update the risk register to reflect new learnings. Sometimes we identify new risks. In projects past, I’ve experienced the surprise of stainless steel rusting. New day, new data, new Product Risk assessment.

4. Reduce the Largest Project Risks First

In my experience, project teams are pretty good at identifying Product Risks, but Project Risks are often ignored. Project Risks can be incorporated into the same risk register as Product Risks, ranking Project Risks by the difficulty of getting the tasks done on time or on budget. As an example, getting Ethics Committee approval for a trial of a new device might be very risky, so the tasks needed to submit the application should be up-prioritized.

5. Identify Your Bottleneck Resources and Keep Them Busy

Don’t miss your sterilization dates, because another chamber might not be available anytime soon.

If your team is short on software engineers, don’t make your software engineers wait a long time for requirements to be defined. Up-priortize your requirement definition tasks.

If you only have one prototype on which to perform testing, don’t let it sit idle. Up-prioritize your test protocol tasks.

Every project has some set of resources with limited capacity. Smart project teams identify these bottlenecks early and up-prioritize the tasks needed to keep that capacity productive.

6. Incorporate Project Learnings Systematically

For every task performed each week, ask “What did that teach us?” Then ask how that learning might affect prioritization. Perhaps we learned that an assembly process is more difficult than we expected, or that our test method has user-variability. How might these learnings affect our prioritization?

7. Ask How Changes In The Outside World Represent Opportunities and Threats

Twenty-ish years ago, a startup named ConBio introduced its first tattoo removal laser at disruptive prices, while my company, Candela, was developing our higher-performance product. We continued to execute the project plan we had in place, and at introduction, our higher prices led to smaller-than-desired market shares. We believed that people would pay for performance, despite growing evidence to the contrary. We should have changed our project plans instead.

Changes to the way hospitals purchase products might affect prioritization. Changes in regulations, and changes in technical standards may affect prioritization.

Great project managers keep a close eye on the outside world, and ask how external changes may be opportunities or threats.

In complex projects, “gut feel” task prioritization leads inevitably to poor project performance and missed milestones. While there is no way to guarantee project success, an analytical approach to prioritization provides the best chance.


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