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The importance of prioritization—because HR can’t do it all at the same time

Kimberly Carroll, IA
Kimberly Carroll
With more than 20 years of transformational experience across HR, finance, payroll, and shared services, Kimberly Carroll has extensive experience in strategic long-range planning, process optimization, and guiding clients through their transformational journey. As managing principal and co-leader of IA, Kimberly supports the needs of some of the largest, high-growth, dynamic, global organizations in the world with an emphasis on strategic vision, productivity improvement, internal realignment, governance, and prioritization.

During our keynote at the HR Tech Conference this year, Mark Stelzner and I discussed the idea of “HR tech debt.” We covered a lot of ground during our session, and we were glad to hear the topic resonated with the attendees.

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One of the causes of HR tech debt we highlighted was a lack of prioritization. During the session, I offered to share a model I’ve used in the past, and the number of requests I’ve received since then has been overwhelming—and heartening. It tells me that people recognize the need to prioritize the work they are doing; they just don’t know how to get started.

I’m passionate about prioritization. Let’s face it: it is impossible for you or any organization to do all the things all at once, no matter how much you want to—though there’s a lot of pressure on HR to get things done, especially this time of year.

Deliverables that were promised in Q4 are now coming due. Budget dollars earmarked for 2023 are at risk if they aren’t used by the end of the year, and with budgets being locked in for 2024, unused dollars are under even more scrutiny.

This urgency to act is where companies often get themselves into trouble. Without a process to identify, analyze and prioritize work, it’s easy to fall into a pattern where the loudest voice gets to go first, which can lead to unintended consequences across the organization. We worked with one client that began its transformation journey with the best of intentions to stay organized, but early on, the team failed to commit to an ongoing prioritization process and ultimately struggled to keep on top of the demands of the program.

Instead of focusing on the negatives of not having a prioritization model, let’s focus on some of the benefits we see in organizations that practice regular prioritization:

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Enhanced strategic alignment: A foundational element for meaningful work is aligning project priorities with the overarching organizational goals and strategies. Projects that don’t contribute to these larger objectives can lead to the misallocation of resources and missed opportunities. They can also be at greater risk of having funding cut.

Improved resource allocation: A well-thought-out prioritization model ensures that your resources—whether they are time, people or finances—are directed where they matter most. With budgets getting tighter and spending facing increased scrutiny, this strategy helps to optimize resource usage, focusing on high-impact tasks while conserving resources on less critical activities.

Increased stakeholder satisfaction: Prioritizing tasks based on stakeholder needs, pain points and expectations is fundamental to ensure their engagement and satisfaction. When stakeholders see their priorities addressed and their voices heard, they become more supportive of the project.

Better risk management: Prioritization allows you to identify and address potential risks before they escalate. It forces you to think through not only importance but sequencing. By dealing with high-priority tasks first, you can mitigate potential issues, ultimately reducing the likelihood of project delays or failures.

Focused decision-making: A prioritization model helps take some of the emotion out of the decision-making process. Rather than relying on politics and persuasion to determine which projects to focus on, prioritization uses a calculation to score each item’s importance. Introducing objectivity to the process helps clarify what’s really important.

“But, Kimberly,” you may be saying, “we already prioritize! Once a year, we make our teams list every single project we want to do, and then leadership gets together in a room to negotiate when our projects kick off, and then we put everything in a spreadsheet and save it to a shared drive.”

Read HRE’s full coverage of the HR Technology Conference here.

I wish this were a completely fictional quote, but I’ve heard (and seen) a version of this at far too many companies. While there are plenty of leaders who agree that a prioritization model is important, many don’t understand how to implement and sustain one. Because I’ve helped so many organizations with prioritization, I want to share the basic components of a good model and some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Step 1: Investigate current prioritization models

Before embarking on the creation of your own model, check to see if there is one already in use at your company. We see them used most often in IT, but you can also find them in a project management office (PMO) or in use for strategic planning at the executive level. While existing models may not be a perfect fit, it’s a good idea to be aware of what the organization uses and build off that.

Step 2: Identify criteria

Some people like to use a simple matrix with four quadrants that take a high-level approach of value versus effort. While this can be a useful way to quickly categorize work, it typically isn’t detailed enough to really prioritize work.

In the models I’ve used, the criteria should be something important to the company, e.g., alignment with strategic vision, impact on employee/customer/candidate/manager experience, etc. You should limit the criteria to four to six items to keep the model useful. You could do more, but remember you need to score it!

Step 3: Weight the criteria

Not all criteria are created equally, so it’s important to weight each element appropriately. We typically use a 1-5 scale for weighting to keep it simple. And remember, not everything can be a 5!

Step 4: Gain alignment

Prioritization in a vacuum doesn’t work, so meet with stakeholders to gain alignment and agreement on the model you’ve put together. This can be an iterative process as everyone considers the criteria and weighting.

Step 5: List and score the projects

When scoring the projects, you have some options as to what scale to use. I typically see a 1-5 scale, but I have also used a 10-point scale. Each project should be scored for each criteria. At this point, you may also identify some quick wins—work that just makes sense to do right away and doesn’t need to be prioritized.

Step 6: Calculate rating

Now that the projects have been scored per criteria, it’s time to apply the weighting to each criteria and calculate the overall rating. This gives you a single “score” to use to rank the projects from highest to lowest.

Step 7: Identify dependencies

It’s important to identify which projects require other work to be done first, so take the time to label the dependencies. Helpful tip: Make sure you label it appropriately so you know which project is a dependency for another one. We’ve seen some groups simply have a checkmark that a project is a dependency … but they don’t know for what!

Step 8: Review and finalize

Once everything is scored, ranked and dependencies have been identified, take some time as a group to review the ranking and make sure it passes the “sniff test.” Do the rankings make sense? Do you need to discuss the ratings and make any changes? This is common, especially the first few times you score projects. Once everyone calibrates on ratings and meanings, it will go faster.

Step 9: Rinse and repeat

Prioritization is not a one-and-done activity. New initiatives come up all the time, and the organization’s focus may shift along the way, so it’s important to revisit the project list on a regular basis. We recommend a monthly or quarterly review.

No matter where you are in your transformation, introducing a prioritization model is never too early. And if you are in the maintenance stage, it’s even more important to keep prioritization front and center. Taking the time to make sure you’re spending your energy and resources on the right things will help ensure the organization continues to move in the right direction.