Exploring Project Priorities


A sign on a print shop wall reads:

People want their projects good, fast, and cheap.
We say, "Pick two."

That's a lot of wisdom in twelve words. Getting priority information on your projects can be challenging, but the idea is similar.

The "Iron Triangle" of every project has three sides:

  1. Scope-What are the goals of the project, including products to be created, applicable quality standards, and any process constraints?
  2. Schedule-When are the results desired?
  3. Resources-What people, facilities, equipment, materials, and money are available to the project to accomplish its goals?

These three factors are the basis of project definition. What do you want (scope)? When do you want it (schedule)? What will you invest to get it (resources)?

As a project proceeds, there are always adjustments and tradeoffs from a project's original goals to better match changing realities in both the project and its sponsoring organization. The tradeoffs may be subtle, but there are ALWAYS tradeoffs. If you choose to work a weekend to make a delivery date, you have increased resources to defend the schedule. If you choose to defer a function from release one to release two, you have deferred scope to preserve schedule. By electing to slip a schedule by two weeks to allow time to correct defects before you ship, you are allocating additional time and resources to preserve scope (quality).

Tradeoffs are natural. Becoming good at identifying tradeoffs is a good career skill. Being able to explore and understand your sponsor's priorities so that you offer the right tradeoffs is essential.

1) On my projects, I use a tool called an RSS (Resource/Schedule/Scope) matrix to discuss priorities with a sponsor (see figure 1). I try to discuss priorities early in the project as the initial scope, schedule, and resource goals emerge. The rules of the matrix are listed in the image.

Figure 1: RSS (Resource/Schedule/Scope) matrix

To begin, I build an empty matrix and pencil an "X" in the "least flexible" column for all three variables (an illegal matrix). Then I walk a sponsor through the sorting, asking a series of hypothetical questions that make pair-wise comparisons of scope and schedule, schedule and resources, and resources and scope. As priorities emerge, I move the X's to reflect the sponsor's desires until there is only one X in each column.

Although it takes a bit of practice, the result is worth it. Some suggestions as you start:

  • Assure the sponsor that he is not committing to ANYTHING in advance. This tool only helps identify potential tradeoffs consistent with the sponsor's priorities. He will have a chance to approve any specific tradeoffs before they are made via your change management process (or some similar consultation).
  • Be patient with a new sponsor-he may think you are looking for wiggle room. Let him know that you are trying to understand his priorities to better support his business decisions.
  • Don't guess. This is a vital discussion to have with the sponsor explicitly. Don't make an inference based upon the business case or corporate culture. You will usually learn something about the project as part of the discussion.
  • This matrix is a crude tool; actual priorities may vary over time. This general guideline is helpful to support your problem solving. If the reaction you get to specific proposals consistently digresses from the RSS matrix guide,
    you might want to check with the sponsor to see if priorities have changed.
  • No ties-there are ALWAYS priorities. If the sponsor had an unavoidable choice of allowing a project to be a day late or a dollar over budget, which would he pick?

For fun, consider a project you are working on. What do you think the RSS priorities for that project might be? Write them down. Don't read the next sentence until you are done...I'll wait...Got it? Now, imagine giving this article to your project team and sponsor and asking them to do the same thing. If you compared results, would all the answers match? If not, doesn't that suggest a communication problem on the project? Who has the right picture? Remember, the project sponsor gets to choose.

About the author

AgileConnection is a TechWell community.

Through conferences, training, consulting, and online resources, TechWell helps you develop and deliver great software every day.