Prioritising projects is pretty easy when you can look at the business case and see which one is going to bring you the most return financially. Whether you’re looking at sales, profit, return on investment or some other cost benefit analysis the great thing about money is that it is tangible and numbers-led. So the comparisons are straightforward. Many execs would opt to work on the projects that bring in the most financial return with the least effort. Simple.
Why projects don’t use financial prioritisation
Organisations don’t use financial methods for prioritising for several reasons, including:
In reality, projects don’t just deliver financial tangible returns. Some projects would struggle to put any money-related measures down on paper. They simply don’t compute that way.
In those situations it is a much harder job to compare projects and choose which ones to work on first. Prioritisation becomes more of a shouting match: the manager who shouts the loudest wins. You also risk priorities changing quickly because someone had lunch with someone else who is influential in deciding these things and suddenly your resources are pulled and given to another team.
Without clear prioritisation, it’s impossible to establish which project is the most important. Let’s look at ways that you can prioritise projects when it’s not about the money.
Other ways of prioritising
By the need to stay in work
The main category of project that I’ve worked on that does not have an easy monetary value is the ones that revolve around staying in business. Examples are:
Projects that allow you to continue to operate should be considered high priority. However, they might not be urgent if you can put the work off a bit. So that’s a YES the project must be done but a NOT NECESSARILY NOW for the work schedule.
By the value added
If you can’t compute value in monetary terms, this categorisation of project becomes quite difficult to measure and therefore compare. Narrative is good: have the discussion and thrash it out but use objective questions to force ‘enthusiastic’ project sponsors to fully justify where the value will be added.
Typically you’ve got two choices:
You can see that there is likely to be some overlap – is a new process adding value to existing team members or creating new value? – but I think you get the picture.
Why not do the easy projects? They can fit in around the larger, more strategic pieces. To be able to prioritise the easy work and slot it in to the programme, you need to know how easy it is going to be. Subjectivity comes into play here as well, as you will have to take a relatively educated guess about what’s achievable for your business.
If you have done something similar before, you have clear goals, the skills are in-house and the risk profile is low, then that sounds straightforward enough for me.
These three prioritisation options gives you different ways to look at the portfolio of projects and align the work with strategic priorities. If it’s easy and adds value, do it. If it’s important to keep the business functioning, do it. If it looks really hard and you won’t get much value from it, ditch it. It’s not rocket science.
As with anything that is not based on numerical, statistical analysis, you have to be careful that people don’t game the system. Ideally you want to create a questionnaire that is completed by an objective party in consultation with the sponsor. Give each criteria a ranking and then calculate the overall total. Then you can put your projects in order and work on them as they reach the top.
Project prioritisation is something that you have to go back to regularly. The order you set for your team today won’t be the same in a few months as business priorities will have shifted. The NOT NECESSARILY NOW projects may be at the top of the list then.
I’d be interested to hear your thoughts when you have no way of using monetary criteria to prioritise projects. How do you do it?
In this video I discuss the three reasons why you should write a business case for your project, even if you work in an organisation that doesn't normally pay much heed to that kind of paperwork.
Have you ever sat in a meeting that has started late and wondered how much money it has cost the company to have all those subject matter experts sitting around doing nothing? If you haven’t, maybe you should. It would certainly encourage you to be more efficient in meetings!
Whether you do timesheets or not, or cross-charge your client or not, your time on a project has a financial cost. Let’s look at what that is made up of.
Recruitment costs related to hiring you in the first place: placing an ad, holding interviews, preparing materials
Direct costs are the tangible ones that related to your pay and benefits. They include:
All pretty clear so far.
These are costs of turning up to work and are incurred by all employees. They are quite hard to work out and you might find some financial whizz in the business has done it but normally you wouldn’t know about these.
Still with me?
Then there are other costs that don’t appear on any balance sheet. These are the hidden costs of being an employee.
How do you prove your worth?
OK, we can’t put a financial figure on the total of all of these but you can see that on any given day it could run to a substantial amount. On days where you work really hard and effectively from your home office (and therefore pay for your own heating, lighting and tea) and sort out a lingering personnel problem on the project team you would cost your company less than a day where all your meetings started late so there was a lot of sitting around in the office.
Regardless of the figure – and it really doesn’t matter what it is – the point is that your time on a project is worth something. How do you prove this to your manager?
No one is going to ask you at the end of the year whether you have contributed adequately to cover your ‘worth’. Your employment is not a profit and loss account. But it is a good idea to have some ideas prepared to make it clear to them that you are a valuable employee. That could be anything from taking part in external conferences to raise the company’s profile locally to gaining a credential to increase your confidence to delivering a project that generates millions of dollars of revenue.
I can’t tell you what the answer is but I do know that subconsciously employers do think about these things and do know who is a valuable employee and who is less of an asset to the team. They might not use pure financial terms to quantify your contribution, but they will be aware of what contribution you make and how that compares to others in the department.
Can you justify your contribution if asked?
I’d be interested to hear if you have ever worked out the cost of a slow-to-start meeting or if you have calculated your contribution in financial terms. Why not let us know what happened in the comments?
Last time I looked at 4 soft benefits that go into project business cases and are a factor in project selection. They were:
Today I’ll look at another 4. You may be able to include these in your next project proposal alongside the financial measures and with any luck they will help get your project approved.
1. Increased user satisfaction
Customers are one thing, but it also pays to improve the experience for internal users. So if you are designing software for use in-house or for clients, improving their satisfaction with the product will be a significant project benefit.
Project selection should take this into account as (generally) happier users are more productive and are more likely to stick to the processes. If the products they are using are not easy to navigate, they will find ways around the processes in order to make their lives easier. This negates any benefits the software or process is designed to offer. In my experience, going outside the process means that data isn’t collected in a standard way so any measures are incorrect. Many user satisfaction improvements could be done to systems to improve data collection and make it less obtrusive for users – a better experience for them and a better standard of management information for others, so everyone benefits.
2. Improved corporate image
Improving brand awareness is one thing, but what if everyone thinks your brand doesn’t represent value for money? Or that it is not socially responsible? Some projects are designed to improve the image of your brand and while these won’t directly impact the bottom line they could result in more sales or a brand that is ‘worth’ more.
3. Increased safety
Safety measures at work normally cost money, so health and safety projects can find it difficult to justify the investment. But how do you put a price on the health and safety of workers? Projects that implement new measures or better processes that will help avoid accidents are essential in some cases.
And they do indirectly contribute financially: lower insurance premiums, fewer sick days so better staff productivity, better staff morale from knowing they are with a responsible employer and fewer court cases, one would hope. But putting a financial measure on this can be difficult: your finance department may have some models that will help, but otherwise it’s probably best to leave this as an intangible project benefit unless you can categorically link it to a financial figure.
4. Meeting regulation
As I mentioned in a footnote last time, sometimes projects are done for no financial benefit at all because change is required to meet new regulations. There isn’t much decision making involved in project selection when it comes to regulatory projects because you have to do them. You could make the link to financial benefits such as reduced risk of being fined by your industry watchdog, but in reality you are going to do the project anyway, so there isn’t any need to spend hours working out the financial figures – just get to work on the project!
Project selection processes differ from company to company depending on what your business considers important. For some it will be to make tactical changes, for others project choice will be limited by the resources available or by corporate strategy or by the technology available to support projects. All project selection should consider the chance that the project will be successful: there really is no point kicking off a piece of work that has very little chance to succeed as this is simply a waste of resources and time.
Selecting projects effectively, even if the business case is made up of ‘soft’ benefits, will ultimately benefit the firm financially as it means project teams will not be tied up working on initiatives that are wasteful, not a good fit for business strategy and that won’t contribute to the company. Pick your projects with care and use your project time wisely!
When we select what projects to do, return on investment is one of the major decision-making factors for many companies. Financial measures like cash flow and ROI are essential: after all, who wants to work on a project that isn’t going to contribute to the bottom line? What’s the point?*
The financial justification of a project is normally worked out by whether the financial benefits outweigh the project’s total lifecycle costs, by how much and when this happens. Your finance team or portfolio office will probably have a selection of measures that they use to calculate the important sums behind project selection.
However, financial benefits aren’t everything.
What else needs to be considered?
You’ll probably have worked on projects that don’t have huge financial benefits but contribute to the company strategically or tactically in other ways. Here are 4 additional ‘soft’ benefits that can (and should) be taken into account during project selection:
1. Increased customer satisfaction
Happy customers generate return business and it’s a commonly held belief that it costs less to keep a customer than it does to attract a new one. So it really does pay to get your customers on side and keep them happy. How do you measure customer satisfaction? Whether it is through surveys, an Exceed customer satisfaction review, focus groups or amount of ‘likes’ on social media sites, you’ll need to take a baseline first before your project implements anything so that you can do a comparison later on.
While customer satisfaction is often considered a soft benefit, customers do spend money so there are financial implications of keeping customers happy. Normally though, this is really hard to work out in terms of adding numbers into a business case, so unless you’ve got some complicated models it gets lumped under the ‘soft’ benefits category. Pair it with increased revenue as a hard financial measure.
2. Improved brand awareness
While brand management and PR agencies would probably say that there are tangible financial measures relating to brand awareness, it is hard to measure and in my experience isn’t worked out for project business cases. If you are opening a new store, for example, this will increase brand awareness of your business in the area where the store is, but how do you measure this? It’s tricky. And even if you can measure it reliably, can you link it to a financial measure? Just because people know about the company doesn’t mean they will spend money with you.
3. Better staff morale
Lots of internal projects are done to improve staff morale, whether that’s decorating the staff canteen or implementing a suggestion scheme. Staff morale is something that can be measured and many companies run internal staff surveys to track how employees feel about the company. Compare these results year on year and you’ll be able to see how morale changes, but there are many factors at play so tying these results to one particular project is difficult.
I’ve read research that shows happier staff are more productive, so if you equate productivity with revenue, you can see that there is a financial link. However, it’s one of those that is again tricky to prove or to calculate without some complex models. Still, go for it if you feel you can!
4. Improved processes
OK, some processes do link directly to cash. If it takes a couple of hours less to complete a process you can work out the salary savings of the people involved. But normally with this sort of project you don’t move those staff on to a contract that says they work fewer hours per week. They will fill the time with other things, so the gain is in productivity and the ability to complete more work rather than in direct salary savings.
Even so, improved processes are a good thing, so whether your tangibly calculate the saving or report it as a soft benefit, it’s definitely something to record in the business case for project selection.
Of course, not all business cases will include all these elements, and many will include other soft benefits as well as all the financial measures. Next time I’ll be looking at 4 more soft benefits that could be a deciding factor in project selection so stay tuned!
* The point might be to meet regulation or for other compliance reasons, so I am aware that there are some projects that have to be done, regardless of whether the company is going to make any money.