Many years ago (1970), in a Data Processing group in a local government organization we had several large projects. And, we also had a huge backlog of maintenance, support, and “quick fix” projects. For this backlog of projects, the priorities continually changed. The changes were so frequent that we could plan our week’s work on Monday, but by Friday, little of that work was complete. Why? Because of many new, “even more urgent” projects, and because of priority changes in our backlog.
We addressed this challenge by prototyping a solution: Keeping track of our “backlog” in (of all things) a box of punched cards. That was a primary input to many computer systems in those days. After we perfected the information we needed to track, we began to use an online version. In that era, online often meant a simple listing of card images on an 80-character screen. Unfortunately, our solution did little more than depress us—the backlog kept growing.
And then, several new books on Time Management emerged. After reading a few, we added Urgency and Importance fields to our backlog list, with entries limited to 1, 2 and 3. 1 was most important or most urgent, and so on. We used 1, 2 and 3, because they could be easily averaged. And, we required that all the entries must average 2, to force a sense of high, medium and low Urgency and Importance. Otherwise, everything would soon become Priority 1, destroying the value of the system.
Three Status Categories
These actions had turned our depressing backlog list into a manageable portfolio of projects. We managed three categories of project status, to reflect our emerging understanding of what it would take to truly manage our portfolio:
Requested Projects, each one linked to a project request (very much like current project request forms, 40+ years later). The portfolio entries for each project included:
- Project Identifier (based on a project assignment tracking system)and name.
- Date due.
- Elements of priority: Urgency and Importance (a prerequisite to assignment).
Assigned, In-process Projects, Each had more detailed-project information elsewhere, but in our portfolio, we added this information to each project that entered this stage:
- Assigned to, with help from…
- Low and High estimated effort, in hours.
- Estimated combined hours per day to be spent on the project.
- Planned total days of duration, a figure calculated from the two figures above.
- Planned Start and Planned End date, calculated from the planned start and total days of duration.
Completed Projects, showing the above, and additional information:
- Actual Start and End date.
- Actual effort required.
An aside: One of the most important parts of this approach was the Project Request. We used this as the starting-point for tracking from request, through business need resolution. Among the Request’s useful information—for prioritization—was “what is the business value of this project, in quantifiable terms?” Getting follow-up was often difficult—and it still is.
Interestingly, the communication needed to gather the right data, including the prioritization (using the same 1-3 scale and the Urgency and Importance dimensions we still use today) and identification of the business benefit, slowed down the frequency of priority changes. We significantly improved our throughput without adding staff.
This action saved over 25% of our team’s time, by reducing the volatility of priorities, and resulting start/stop. We were able to more clearly prioritize the projects in the first place. That helped us to get our managers to accept the fact that when they increase the priority for one project, then another must be delayed. This communication about priorities also improved the quality of the results, while reducing costs. And, the mean-time-to-resolution of all the items improved, rather than increased, a result of smarter management of project priorities.
In the 1980s, as we continued using this portfolio prioritization process in our consulting and performance coaching practice, we added more factors, beyond Urgency and Importance.
Our Strategic Portfolio Analysis service, with the addition of Break-Even-Time, Linkage to Strategy, and Risk (we balanced Risk/Reward across the portfolio), looked very much like our 1970s solution. That 1970s solution made its way into Visicalc in the early 1980s, and still today, we use it in our consulting, via Microsoft Excel.
There were undoubtedly many portfolio management approaches in use during that early 1970s era, and before. Our solution worked well for us then, and continues to work for many others. The Bottom Line: You can help to improve the performance of almost any organization. In this case, we did so by better managing how we prioritized, staffed, and led, our projects.