As a Project Manager, your main objective is to deliver a project successfully. It usually means completing in on time, within budget, and with all necessary features and functions. In order to achieve this goal, however, you need to create a reasonable schedule for your team and complete different tasks in order. Which of them should your team approach first? Which ones are the most important? Prioritizing tasks is inevitable, but you can either do it successfully or risk causing delays or resource conflicts.  

In this blog post, we’ve gathered a couple of techniques to select the most important tasks strategically. For starters, let’s talk about project prioritizing in general.

What does it mean to prioritize project tasks?

Are you familiar with the phrase “first things first”? Believe it or not, it explains the process of setting priorities nicely. 

You need to identify the “first” things: the most important tasks, the most pressing activities to do, etc. and then complete them as the first order of business.  

In essence, all you need to do is determine which task is the most important one. It may feel like it’s easier said than done. Still, in reality, you can utilize the techniques described below and make that call with confidence.

Before you start assigning priorities to tasks...

...make sure you have full visibility into what actually needs to be done in order to deliver a given project. It’s imperative to define and control the project scope, so much so that we’ve even dedicated a whole blog post to project scope management.

Once you have collected project requirements and signed off the scope with different stakeholders, you can write down all the tasks needed to be completed. Gather them in a document or your project management tool. At this point, you can divide them into different categories (e.g., project phases) and later prioritize tasks within these groups.

Remember to keep your team members in the loop:

  • they need to understand your project’s objectives fully, and what different stakeholders want to achieve business-wise,
  • they should know the scope of the project as well as the list of tasks even before they get started on the project. It’s beneficial for at least two reasons. One, it helps you to foster project transparency from the very beginning. Two, your team members, being experienced in their lines of work, can help you prioritize work or provide valuable insights.

Apart from the goals of the project and its scope, team members should also be aware of dependencies between tasks and possible constraints. This information will come in handy when you start working on the project schedule and the order of tasks.

How to prioritize project tasks? The most popular strategies for prioritizing

Being able to tell a high-priority task from the one with almost no importance may be simple. Ordering tasks with a similar level of priority, however, may turn out to be much more challenging. Yet you have to propose a certain order if you want project tasks to get done.

Fortunately, several techniques allow you to successfully prioritize work as a project manager. Let’s go through some of these, one by one.

Eisenhower matrix

It’s one of the most popular strategies for picking the essential activities to focus on. All you need to do is divide all of the tasks into four groups depending on their importance and urgency:

  • Urgent and important
  • Not urgent and important
  • Urgent and not important
  • Not urgent and not important.

Just glancing at your Eisenhower matrix, you’ll see which tasks to tackle first (urgent and important), and which to focus on later (not urgent and important). 

What about the other two groups? Typically, group 3 can be delegated, and group 4 consists of tasks you can easily eliminate from your to-do list. 

It looks slightly different in the project settings, where you don’t necessarily have an option to delegate or eliminate work items. Even just knowing, however, that a given task is not critically important can help you find a spot for it in your project team schedule.

The MoSCoW method

This method, again, requires you to group your potential tasks. You’ll use categories related to the indispensability of a particular task in the project.:

  • Must-have
  • Should-have
  • Could-have
  • Won’t-have

While it’s a useful technique for prioritizing tasks, it may be even more beneficial as a part of the scope management process. You can ask stakeholders to label project requirements according to these four groups. You’ll see where their priorities are.

Assess the potential value

Anyone who has ever worked in project management probably knows about the Pareto principle. According to it,  80% of effects originate from 20% of causes. In other words, 20% of tasks can bring 80% of project benefits. 

Your goal? Identify that 20% of tasks. In order to do that, you can try to imagine what value can be created by the completion of each task. This way, you should be able to tell the core work from bells and whistles.

What if they don’t get done?

You can also try an opposite approach to assess the value to be gained: think what will happen if your team doesn’t deliver a particular task.  Most of the time, you will be able to spot items that simply have to be done, or else the project won’t be successful. These are your high-priority tasks.

Reflect on how you feel about these tasks

When prioritizing project tasks, try to be aware of how you feel about them personally. You might be tempted to label something as low-priority because you’re simply not looking forward to working on it. Your team may also be procrastinating on tasks that are important but not terribly exciting. As a project manager, you need to account for their feelings and expectations, but also assess the tasks objectively.

Don’t forget about dependencies and constraints

Whichever of these techniques you choose to follow, pay attention to tasks that have other dependencies. You might have tasks upon completion of which other items depend. Prioritize them accordingly.

The same goes for project constraints (e.g., resources shortage). If you expect any of your tasks to be affected by these constraints somewhere down the project timeline, you may want to schedule them for when they’re more likely to be done (e.g., now).

Prioritize as a group

Your team may be very helpful in assigning priorities to different project tasks. Atlassian has published a recipe for a group prioritizing exercise as a part of their Team Playbook. You can check it out here.

Project task prioritizing: embrace the change

Change is inevitable in project management.  It’s also true for priorities—they can change as well. A good idea is to revise your prioritized list of work items regularly and evaluate whether this order is still appropriate. Remember to communicate with your team when something changes: they need to know that there’s been a shift in priorities.

One more thing here: even though you should be prepared for changes, it doesn’t mean that you should just accept them, no questions asked. It’s your job to investigate the reasons for any major project changes. Why? Firstly, you always need to be aware of current business objectives. Secondly, changing priorities can be a warning sign of the scope creep (an unexpected/uncontrollable growth of the project scope).

There you have it: a list of techniques that you can use for project tasks prioritizing. What to do when you’re done with assigning priorities? You should record these decisions: there’s usually a field for “task priority” within your project management tool. 

You can also monitor the results of your prioritizing efforts in your team’s resource calendar. Some resource management apps (including Teamdeck) allow you to label your tracked time (and bookings) with “high-priority” or “low-priority” tags.  If your team uses timesheet tags, you can create a report and analyze how much of their time is spent on the most important tasks. Do they spend much time on non-essential work? That’s your cue to do something about it.

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