Project Manager’s Secret Weapon: Prioritization

Anastazja Michalak
By Anastazja Michalak
12 Min Read

Let me tell you a story about one sprint. Consider it as a mini-project. The goal and scope are set for a single sprint of development (3 weeks). Since this is not the team’s first sprint together, the velocity is known. The scope has been officially approved and agreed upon with the customer, including designs, MVP functionality, and release dates. Expectations are built on what the team can commit to and what can be considered “stretch-targets”, not commitments, in case some capacity becomes available. But 3 weeks is a long time, and anything can happen during that period.

Sprint X, Week 1

In the first week, the customer reaches out with an additional request.

The product owner realizes that, before the Go Live, he needs to include one more user story in the sprint scope. However, you cannot exclude anything from the already agreed and approved MVP scope, leaving little to no room for negotiation (if an additional story goes in, another must come out, or the scope of existing stories must be reduced). You feel cornered because without this new user story, the functionality released won’t deliver the required value.

What should you do 🤷‍♀️?

Later that same week, the customer asks if you and someone from the team could take a look at additional functionality managed by a third-party provider. They say: “Hey, there’s not much to do for you guys, no worries. we’ll handle it by ourselves; We just need you to look and advise us on which buttons to push.”

In the best interest of the customer, you agree to dedicate 30 minutes to “just have a look and advise.” Upon doing so, you realize it’s more complex than it seemed. The details reveal that you need to conduct a spike (a time-boxed task for research and investigation) to understand what your team can control versus what falls under the third party’s responsibility. You would also need to experiment with those changes.

This additional work is on top of what was already committed. Time spent here means less time for developing the MVP functionality. While not essential, you know that the MVP will benefit from this, enhancing the overall user experience on the UI side.

What should you do 🤷‍♀️?

Sprint X, Week 2

Early in the second week of development, a production bug is reported.

One of the team members identifies critical production issue, and if it is not fixed asap, your customer could face a severe legal problem. You have some limited capacity to address the bug, but it’s not sufficient. Upon further investigation, you realize that the bug is complex and will require extensive investigation, consuming a significant portion of time.

What should you do 🤷‍♀️?

Sprint X, Week 3

All of a sudden, the customer informs you that the final release date is moved up by 2 days.

There is absolutely nothing you or anyone else can do about it, as this is a market driven external factor. Now, the buffer you had planned for is reduced. You need to re-plan the release activities and speed up the UAT phase.

What do you do🤔?

Meanwhile, there are other non-critical requests coming in, from other parties involved, from other stakeholders. These seemingly minor distractions can accumulate but if not monitored and prioritized accordingly will consume time and drive you off track.

What do you do 🤔?

Against all odds: delivering result

Despite the challenges, through effective prioritization, close monitoring, and tight control of the sprint scope, the MVP was delivered. This was possible thanks to skillful negotiation, team’s hard work, and creative problem-solving by everyone involved—the product owner, team members, project manager, and other stakeholders.

Yes, it was a tough delivery, with a high risk of delays, but in the end, what truly matters is the delivered result. The customer was happy with the outcome, and the project met its goals.

Project management may feel like riding a bike through a storm, but with the right skills and teamwork, you can steer through any challenge and come out on top.

The essence of this story

The essence of this story lies in how you navigate through each challenge, because even if you have created a clear plan, planned some buffer for unpredicted issues, communicated and agreed the delivery with stakeholders – the map is not the territory and there will be mutliple external factors which could drive you off track.

What did we do to keep us on track?

Prioritization, Scope and Capacity Control:

  • Additional functionality requested by the customer was delivered. First, it required clear re-alignment with the product owner on what must have been completed first. Secondly, re-aligned with the team: whenever anyone was blocked on any of the priority work and had capacity to take up some work in parallel, they could pick up this P1 stretch target. It was a win – win: no time wasted while waiting, and if any free hands – team knew what was important. Thirdly, in a parallel squad some activities were re-alinged and a person was identified, who could support with developing a piece of functionality in squad 1.
  • Evaluated the impact of the production bug and balanced it against the MVP deadline. Same approach as above: aligned and communicated clearly to the team on what is important and in which sequence to pick up things whenever capacity appears due to waiting time, for example.
  • Additional non-critical functionaltiy for “just a quick check” was re-negotiated with client to be parked for later, and there was a clear explanation set on why this coud not have been picked up. Being clear and transparent in communication, reasoning and impact for parking the request helped in keeping the team focused on the goal.
  • There had to be attentive close monitroing of the sprint progress to ensure that team members are not distracted by numerous unprioritized requested from external stakeholders, and it was critical to ensure team understood the priorities and did not pick up by chance any of the non priority items. On tol of that, all external requests from stakeholders were evaluated from the perspective of scope, priorities, deadlines and each of them was aligned and planned accordingly for later schedules.

Re-planning and Adaptation:

  • With the new release date, the schedule was re-visited, re-assessed and re-planned accordingly to meet the updated deadline.
  • Re-grouped on testing without compromising quality but focusing on critical functionalities.
  • Continuously communicated and re-aligned with the team on all the changes and urgency to ensure everyone is on the same page and is aware of the situation.

Managing and Controlling Non-Critical Requests:

  • Minimized distractions by setting boundaries on non-essential tasks.
  • Delegated where possible or scheduled the additional requests for later phases based on their timelines and priorites.
  • Using the power of negotiation, politely declined and defered non-urgent requests to stay focused on the primary objectives.

Prioritization is your Super Power 💪

I know you might say it is easier said than done. And I agree with you. Because there is a very thin line between making your customers happy vs. burning out and exhausting your team. On the one hand, if you keep saying “No” to a client in the best interest of keeping the balance – the client eventually will find those who will say “Yes”. And on the other hand – if you keep pushing the team, you risk ending up in chaos, when scope is uncontrolled, project is red, team is exhausted and rotation is high because nobody wants to continuously work their fingers to the bone.

What to do?

I will share with you some of the practices I excercise on a daily basis.

  1. Thorough Planning: You emphasize the importance of planning, considering not just team velocity and capacity but also interdependencies, structure and buffer for unplanned items to ensure smooth execution throughout the sprint.
  2. Limited Multitasking: While multitasking can be detrimental, you advocate for handling two tasks simultaneously to maintain productivity, especially when one task is blocked. Daily stand-ups provide a platform to identify and address blockers promptly and making use of the waiting time.
  3. Flexibility and Adaptation: You demonstrate adaptability by accommodating custmer requests, change of priorities by balacing goals, plans and changes. No changes would be a threat to business and value produced, but uncontrolled changes will be detrimental to plans, scope, budgets and teams health.
  4. Effective Communication: Your communication skills shine through as you carefully and clearly explain situations to clients, negotiate priorities, and ensure alignment with project objectives.
  5. Negotiation and Prioritization: Prioritization is key, and you need to excel at negotiating with clients to align priorities, protect team focus, and manage expectations regarding deliverables.
  6. Strategic Replanning: In the face of changing circumstances, you proactively replan and negotiate timelines with clients, seeking the best possible outcome while balancing constraints and requirements.

Key insights for the future

  • Never ever underestimate the power of planning
  • Prioritization should become your second nature
  • Continuously look to understand the reason behind the stakeholder’s request and what is really needed and will bring value instead of just wanted
  • Be creative in finding alternative solutions, build Plan A/Plan B and Plan C and identify workarounds. You are paid to solve problems.

By the way, I have written a related article for prioritization and self-organization, check it out here 👉 Microsoft To Do: 5 Lifehacks For Effective Managers.

Question to you: How do you monitor and control scope changes?

Share This Article
By Anastazja Michalak IT Program Manager, PMP
I am a certified Project and Program Manager with hands-on experience in delivering complex business initiatives since 2014.
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *