When it’s all a Number One Priority

We all do it at some point or another. We start creating that to do list and find ourselves struggling with which task to do first because we want them all done. Or, we find ourselves completely overwhelmed by saying yes to all the things we want to be able to do but then realize there’s just no way it’s all getting done with any level of quality or maintaining our sanity.

The drive to make an IMPACT is very real for so many of us so it’s easy to see how organizations could struggle to commit to a prioritized list of projects and stick to that priority when the needs of the customers are always changing, or new information becomes available that shifts our thinking and strategy.

But we know, as PMs and PMO leaders that we must have consistent focus and direction if we ever want to get projects done. How are we going to ever make an IMPACT if we can’t focus on a project long enough to achieve the benefits?

Yet, so many of us find ourselves shifting from one priority to the next many times a day or even many times an hour and then wonder where the time went and why we don’t have more to show for it.

Now, expand that to the entire portfolio of projects happening in your company right now and you see the dilemma, right?

How do you get your organization to commit long enough to see projects through when the needs are constantly shifting?

Years ago, I was brought into an organization to stand up a PMO to manage the company’s client-facing projects. The company was in desperate need of a project delivery upgrade. They had a lot of wasted cycles, less than optimal productivity on project work, constantly shifting priorities and focus, and some very unhappy customers.

The first thing I did was look at the list of projects to understand where to focus my efforts for the biggest IMPACT quickly. When I asked them about the priority of the client projects, what do you think they said?

All of them, of course!

I could see we had our work cut out for us.

I mentioned the idea of prioritizing the projects and that was not met with a lot of enthusiasm. To them, the thought of prioritizing the projects was both daunting and stress inducing. How could they tell any of their clients they weren’t as high of a priority as other clients?

The reality, however, was that they didn’t have unlimited time, money, or resources so some decisions needed to get made and quickly before the downhill slide got worse! I showed them how they would get more done and have happier clients if they created a more focused environment for their team to work. Do less at one time and still get more done overall.

Why was that the case? Because we are terrible at multi-tasking. In fact, we aren’t multi-tasking at all! The brain doesn’t let you do several higher order tasks at the same time, so you are simply task switching between activities and every time you task switch, you lose some time resetting your mind to remember where you were and what should happen next. Think of it like having to reboot your computer every time you go from one app on your computer to the next.

That would drive you insane.

Well, that’s what we do when we switch between tasks.

Now imagine that the entire company is doing that across all your projects. Every time one person must shift their focus to work on one project and then another and then another, they are rebooting the computer. If the entire organization is doing this across each of their tasks across each day and across all projects, we have a lot of wasted cycles in rebooting.

Alternatively, if we were to allow our staff to focus on a task until it was done or at least decrease the number of projects that a person is working on at any given time, we can give them the necessary space to focus on that work to see it through to completion faster than if they are constantly task-switching. The water flows through the funnel at a smooth an even rate, without all the mess.

Once I convinced the leadership team that we would make more progress with a little focus, we took a gentle approach to project prioritization. They were not ready to make the big shift from no clear and intentional project priority to a 1-N list, but I could get them to categorize them into buckets.

We started with three buckets, A, B, and C, and put each project into one of those categories based on some very basic criteria. That criteria included committed deadlines, work already in progress, overall budget for the project, available resources, and how upset the client was with the current performance. I was particularly interested in turning around those difficult relationships and building trust and creditability with them by getting their work done in a timely manner.

Once we prioritized the projects into the A/B/C buckets, we worked with the project teams to put real plans in place that were detailed enough to show the work that needed to get done and how long it would take without being overly complex or restricting. You don’t have to go crazy on the plans when good enough will do and keep everyone focused and moving. These new plans meant we had to adjust resources to fit the new priorities and see where the opportunities were to fill gaps and assign resources in a way that they weren’t working on 15 projects at one time, like they had been prior.

Taking the time to do this work meant that we could be confident in the new commitments we would make with customers.

Now we were positioned to go back to the customers and set realistic expectations on when their work would be done. Some of them needed to have dates shifted out, which isn’t always an easy conversation. In this case, they were mostly grateful to hear that some detailed planning had been done and that we had a much greater confidence in the dates we were committing to this time around. I was a new face to these clients, but it was clear we had done our homework and I could get very specific about the work that needed to take place. That began the journey of building a trusting relationship with the clients…the next step was to deliver on what we promised.

Now it was time to put our plans into action and make sure everyone stayed on the same page about work status and progress, in addition to priority. We created a very simple one-page view of the projects that included the priority and the status and posted it outside of my office door. Everyone could now see the same information that the leadership team had been reviewing to drive actions and decisions.

And what happened next was magical…

The company started humming like a well-oiled machine.

Everyone could see the priorities of the projects they were on and knew how to focus their time in any given day or week because the status and priority was clear. They weren’t caught up in the “everything is a number one priority” spin cycle that leads to a lot of wasted time and task switching, as well as always feeling like you’re going to have to let someone down.

The dates we committed to were met because we had scheduled projects in a way that meant we had greater focus on fewer projects at one time…work was getting done.

Clients were seeing results and were happy.

The company vibe was a lot less chaotic and stressed and people started feeling much better about their work and loved being able to see the accomplishments stacking up.

The following year, one of those incredibly angry clients was so pleased with the improvements they had seen and the outcomes we helped them achieve for their organization that they spoke at our company’s annual conference talking about the value and benefits of the solutions we provided as well as the great experience they were now having as a client.

Years later, several of those executives I worked with at this company many years ago have now become clients of my mine at PMO Strategies. They saw the positive IMPACT we made by getting laser focused on why we were there in the first place, putting the client first, and making sure that we not just delivered, but did so in a way that helped those executives achieve their ultimate goals. When it was time for them to build PMOs or develop their own internal PM competency, they knew they could call on a team that had made this kind of a turnaround happen so quickly.

In summary, here are some of my favorite techniques to help you guide your team, boss, executives, etc. toward a more prioritized list of projects so that you can Get. It. Done.

  1. Start simple with prioritization.
    Instead of trying to spend your time convincing leadership to prioritize projects from 1-N to no avail, try starting out with something simpler like creating “buckets” for the projects. Then, put projects in those buckets using very basic criteria. This technique works well when you have an organization that cannot get behind doing a 1-N prioritization exercise or as the first of many steps to getting to a 1-N list of projects.
  2. Help them see the cost of the lack of prioritization.
    Show them how the lack of focus is leading teams to be less productive and taking longer to get the outcomes they are looking for. You can explain to them that pouring water through the funnel too quickly will just create a big mess and that finding that optimal flow will yield much greater throughput leading to greater IMPACT faster. You can also connect the benefits of prioritization to the improvement in customer experience which can go a long way to getting your leadership’s attention and support.
  3. Proactively manage the “It’s just one thing.” requests.
    Often, those asking for the projects to be done “yesterday” and asking you to shift your priorities on a moment’s notice to get “just this one thing done,” don’t realize the ripple effect their request has on others. I teach my students the “Yes, and…” principle that I learned through my professional speaking program. Service-focused leaders will look for ways to say yes to the request AND be sure to help the requestor understand the impact of what they’ve requested. “Yes, you can have this change, and here’s what it will take to do that.” The “here’s what it will take” can be the impacts to other projects, additional funding required, etc.
  4. Make priorities visible.
    It’s a lot harder to shift the priorities on a whim without the required justification if the priorities have been made clear and public. Credibility can be impacted if leaders are shifting from one priority to the next when those priorities are being shared publicly. Simple exposure of the priorities to all staff can not only shift the way people operate by aligning everyone on the projects that are the most important and ensuring shared resources are ordering their own work based on project priorities, but it also helps to prevent the shifts from happening as frequently so people can actually get work done.
  5. Be patient.
    So much of the work we do requires immense patience. It’s hard when you know there is a better way to get something done and must watch teams resist the recommendations or look for ways around the process. Just remember that learning new skills and trying new things stretches people in very emotional ways. If you want to be successful in driving a greater IMPACT in your organization, you must meet them where they are and bring them along that journey with you instead of insisting that they meet you where you want them to be.

I share this story with you as an example of the ripple effect making an IMPACT can have on your career and that we don’t need to make things complicated to make an IMPACT. Sometimes simple really is better.

By applying these techniques that I share with you from my own real-world experiences, even when it’s hard to do so, you can build your credibility and brand as an IMPACT Driver. This can lead to boundless opportunities for you in the future.

I wish for you a bright IMPACT Driver future!

Thanks for taking the time to read this article.

Click here to receive these blog posts right to your inbox.

Fill out our one-minute survey if you have topics you would like to see on this blog in the future.

I welcome your feedback and insights. Please leave a comment below.

See you online!


2020-01-19T18:18:32-05:00May 13th, 2019|PMO Practices|


  1. Ahmed jadelrab May 15, 2019 at 7:41 PM - Reply

    Truly thankful for this outstanding insights as it really happends a lot with me during my journey as PMO leader inside organizations. I believe it gives me new way of thinking to deliver a high and quick impact.

    I was wrong when often try to complicate things , I come across that it is not working with me all the time as stakeholders didn’t buy it and argued that we can not see value of having PMO.

    You are my hero. You know what Laura I Still looking forward to have in-depth training on PPM solutions and practices.

    I can’t wait to see you doing do.


    • Laura Barnard May 22, 2019 at 2:42 PM - Reply

      Thank you, Ahmed! I’m so honored to have you in our community of IMPACT Drivers! Stay tuned…more coming for PPM. We’ve got a course that’s in production now AND we are going to have a whole focus area of PPM in our PMO IMPACT Summit this September. Make sure you grab the early pricing for newsletter subscribers only to get lifetime access to the whole thing. You’ll love it.

  2. jado123 May 27, 2019 at 6:46 PM - Reply

    You welcomed Laura, Sure then see you this coming September.

Leave A Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.