How Many #1 Priorities Does Your Team Have?

By Scott Whitbread

Have you ever been working on so many different projects that you failed to make meaningful progress on any of them?

I once worked with the management team of an oil & gas facility who were having such a problem. Given the risk associated with producing hydrocarbon products, they followed a careful management-of-change (or “MOC”) process every time a significant change was made to the operation. For each desired change, they created an MOC request which required key stakeholders to sign off on how this change would be implemented.

And these requests were coming in thick and fast! Each week the number of proposed changes (or “MOC’s”) showed a net increase. At one point well over 500 changes were waiting to be confirmed and implemented. In an effort to begin shrinking the list, the leadership team began furiously prioritizing the MOC’s with a view to getting the high impact ones done first. Initially, they planned to spend one hour each week together working on the list; soon they were having 2-3 hour marathon sessions doing nothing but juggling the list without ever dealing with the proposed changes themselves. What seemed like a straightforward exercise -- examining proposed changes and approving them -- was consuming hundreds of labor-hours and accomplishing nothing.


The Relationship Between the Number of Projects Pursued and Overall Value Delivered

The irony of becoming too busy is that, in trying to achieve more, you actually produce less. If we were to examine the relationship between the number of projects being actively pursued and the overall value being delivered, we’d see that once we pass a certain threshold, additional projects are actually detrimental to the overall value. When there are a few projects, the impact is directly proportional to the number of them (more is more) but at some point the return on each new project begins to diminish until an apex, after which, adding additional projects reduces the overall value being delivered (more is less).

Figure 1 - projects vs value.png

Figure 1: Relationship between number of projects and overall impact

The apex of the relationship represents the maximum rate at which value can be delivered from projects, given the team’s current skills and capabilities. One could also argue that it’s most efficient to pursue the maximum number of projects before the point at which returns begin to diminish. The region between these two points is the team’s current “Zone of Effectiveness”.

When you’re beyond the Zone of Effectiveness, achieving more requires proactively doing less! According to The Stevens Institute of Technology and Portland State University, “(By) being assigned too many projects… a multiple project manager would lose a tremendous amount of time catching up with all the issues in the projects instead of focusing on leading projects.” This is where the oil & gas facility leadership team was; spending much more time catching up on and prioritizing the projects than actually working on them.


How can you tell if you’re operating beyond the Zone of Effectiveness?

There are two clear signs. First, if you look at your project list and can’t bear to drop, or defer, a single one, you’re likely working on too many things. Second, if your plan for success requires a sudden uptick in the effectiveness with which projects are being completed, this hopefulness probably means you can achieve more by attempting less. Once you have passed the apex, you must cut or defer projects. A prioritization approach such as the Opportunity Radar can help your team to align on which projects to cut.

Then, once you are firmly back inside the Zone of Effectiveness, it’s possible to employ some of the bandwidth created to increase the skills and capability of your team and raise their Zone of Effectiveness to a new level. (A key skill we see in short supply is the ability to quickly resolve technical and business process problems to root cause with confidence.)

Figure 2: Result of raising capabilities on the relationship between number of projects and overall impact

After acknowledging that they were operating well beyond their Zone of Effectiveness, the oil & gas leadership team took control of their MOC list. They refused to add new items for a period of time and focused on completing only the highest priority items already on the list. When they were confident they were safely back to an effective state they began adding new MOC requests. Soon they had begun to shrink the list and were then able to maintain it at a healthy size.

When you look at your list of projects, do you have trouble selecting any you could drop or defer? Are you hoping that your team’s capabilities will magically increase so that you can handle everything? If so, you may be operating beyond the Zone of Effectiveness. Cut some projects so that you can get more done and increase the overall value being delivered.


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