The Project Notebook

The Clash of the Priorities

By Susan Peterson, MBA, PMP
Copyright 2005, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

All of us juggle a multitude of priorities in both our professional and personal lives. Often, the number and magnitude of priorities may seem overwhelming and even in conflict with one another. Also, the sources/causes that are driving the priorities may have no logical basis. For example, in the space of a few days I’ve been forced to deal with all of the following, each of which has resulted in a new “project” that I must manage:

A car damaged in a church parking lot by an out-of-state hit-and-run driver
Theft of personal data impacting 3,000 people including me
A homeowners’ association that is refusing to enforce the CC&Rs; (codes, covenants and restrictions)regarding unauthorized construction by a neighbor
My health insurance organization and related hospital group that have severed a long-standing partnership

The preceding list does not even begin to include the immediate priority challenges of my “other” life such as a client who keeps delaying an inevitable decision by continuing to ask me for “just one more piece of information” or a student who demands an explanation and feels entitled to a “B” or a “C” just for attending class sessions.

How project managers deal with numerous priorities can make or break a project and can directly influence the perception of the success of a project. It can be difficult to objectively apply one standard to a wide variety of priorities, but that is what project managers must do. It is especially challenging when several projects have to be managed simultaneously. The following decision criteria can aid in sorting through a mountain of priorities whether on one project or on multiple projects.

Life or Death

This criterion may sound overly drastic, but it crisply focuses one’s perspective. Unless the activity/event will doom or lead to the demise of the project (or the project manager), it is probably not a top priority item. People who have faced death and survived have been known to say after such experiences that everything else is “child’s play”.

Source of the Priority

Is the priority being driven by personal or political whim? Is the priority “driver” someone who specializes in creating crises? In these types of situations the project manager should assess the strength and importance of the priority driver as well as the impact on the overall project. Treating the source of the priority rather than the symptomatic pressure is more effective in reducing the number and severity of high priority items. Medicine that only treats symptoms doesn’t shorten the length of an illness. So too with priorities — jumping from one “top priority” item to another only fuels the drivers of the priorities and may actually prolong the agony by increasing the volume of priority items.

Conflicting Priorities

It is often only the project manager who realizes that priorities are in conflict. For example, one department involved in a project may be incentivized to complete its activities rapidly ahead of schedule without regard for quality. Another department involved in the project may actually experience delays in completing its assigned tasks due to inferior handoffs from the other department. In this type of situation it is the project manager who must educate project participants in the realities of not sacrificing the project for the benefit of a single component.

Rapidly Shifting Priorities

Sometimes priorities are changed so quickly and so often that a project manager can feel that he/she is “twisting in the wind”. When priorities shift constantly, a project manager must exercise judgment to determine if the current shift is just part of the ongoing decision instability or is actually a genuine necessary change. This situation calls for the project manager to be the “calm in the storm” in objectively assessing the need for the shift in priorities. Otherwise, those outside the project team quickly learn to bombard the project manager with urgent or top priority requests.

In conclusion it’s a fact of project management that effective priority management is crucial to “staying the course” through the turbulence
that accompanies projects. So, believe in your capabilities and remain focused.

Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP, is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia. She teaches the Project Management Simulation capstone course in the UCSD Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum committee. She can be contacted at

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