Unifying multiple priorities

Here’s a fairly common project management problem:

  1. You need to assign priorities (or some other kind of value, say “risk level”) to a number of different project elements.  You need these values to be balanced so they make sense across the entire project, so you can compare two values and have them make relative sense.
  2. Allowing someone with a broad overview of the project (e.g. someone high up in the hierarchy) to assign these values can be bad because they don’t have enough detailed information compared to others.
  3. People with more detailed knowledge tend to only have a narrow area of knowledge, so they can’t balance all the values properly.  Each person will assign high values to their area of expertise, because that’s what they care, worry and know about (and that’s the way it should be).

Of course the person high up can ask for everyone’s input and opinion in order to do it in an educated way.  That’s often enough, but how do the people lower down agree with the final scores?  They may not feel happy with the result.  And suppose everyone lower down just gives reasons for their value to be high – how can you balance these against one another?

Is there a better way?

Sorting facility at Singapore port

I was recently in a meeting set up to do this very thing, and problem (3) kept rearing its ugly head.  Everyone knew why the meeting was going nowhere, before someone suggested sticking each project element on a card and sorting the cards top to bottom, with everyone together.  It’s surprisingly easy to compare two values collaboratively when you have all the necessary information in the room.  And that’s all you need for a sort algorithm.  Sometimes you can’t agree on an order for two elements, and that’s usually ok – you can leave some things equal.

It’s surprisingly quick, simple, takes all information into account, and everyone feels that the final result is fair – even if they disagree with some aspect of it, the process is transparent and they feel they had their say.

This may require someone with good chairperson skills 😉

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