September 5, 2022
General
Masooma Memon

How to Prioritize Projects (When You’re Understaffed)

Is your business one of the many dealing with staffing constraints? Proper project prioritization may be able to help - we'll explain how in this guide.

48% of small businesses struggled with staff shortages according to a 2021 survey by the NFBI Research Foundation. This number has probably increased since then given the layoffs and recessions of 2022.

But how can you manage all that workload with significant resource constraints? You ruthlessly prioritize projects.  

The thing is: project prioritization is the key to making sure you’re meeting agreed project deadlines without compromising on the work quality. It’s also your way of maintaining client satisfaction.

But determining which projects are high priority is easier said than done. In this guide, though, we share a reliable project prioritization framework to help you. We’ve also got seven tips on better managing and completing priority projects on time. 

Why is project prioritization important?

Project prioritization is an essential component of project management that ensures all projects in the pipeline are completed by their set timeline without any compromise with the output’s quality.

By digging deep into this, you’ll see that project prioritization helps:

  • Maintain operational efficiency

A project prioritization process helps you maintain the quality and standard of the work you deliver while ensuring the wellness of your remaining staff.

Without it, you either struggle with satisfying clients or burned-out employees, which can make it challenging to retain your clients and the remaining employees, respectively. When you’re heavily understaffed and project managers don’t prioritize projects in time, it’s also possible to face both these problems together.

  • Saves revenue loss

When fewer employees manage the workload of a previously fully staffed office, it’s likely you end up with unsatisfied clients and incomplete projects.

Left unaddressed, clients can be quick to pull the plug on the work they’ve entrusted to you. In turn, this leads to revenue loss. In certain instances where quality is compromised, the situation can also lead to business reputation damage and poor customer reviews. 

How do you prioritize projects?

You can prioritize projects based on multiple criteria. For instance, ask yourself:

  • Which of our clients bring us the most business and revenue?
  • Which client work brings in more revenue with the least amount of work?
  • Which projects in the pipeline are immediately due? 

Having the answers to these questions helps you quickly identify your highest priority projects based on your business’s strategic goals. Use the information to reassign project work to your staff based on these new priorities.

In certain instances though, these questions may not be enough to determine priority projects. If anything, they might yield a list of projects that are equally important.

If so, use the Eisenhower project prioritization framework to create a list of most important projects to work on. 

The Eisenhower matrix

This framework divides projects by ranking them into four quadrants:

  • Do first

Projects that go under this category are urgent and important. So they’re due soon and come from a client that’s crucial for your business.

  • Schedule

Projects under this category are not urgent but important. Add projects from valued clients in this quadrant but those that don’t need immediate attention. Schedule slots in your project timeline to complete the work as soon as urgent and important tasks are complete. 

  • Delegate

Projects here are not important but urgent. Meaning: these projects come from clients that don’t contribute as much revenue to your business as the important ones but are still important. In such a case, you can outsource the work to contractors — we’ll discuss this in detail below. 

  • Delete (deprioritize)

The correct term here would be “deprioritize for now.” After all, responsible businesses stick to the commitments they make. It’s why projects falling in this quadrant — those that are not important and not urgent — should be scheduled for work last. 

7 smart ways to prioritize projects the right way

Now for exactly how to reevaluate your workflow post changes to your organization’s layout and how to prioritize projects:

1. Reevaluate your project workflows

A foundational step in prioritizing projects effectively is revisiting your workflow — or creating one if you already don’t have one.

A project workflow:

  • Streamlines the work that goes into taking a project from the start to the finish line
  • Ensures employees know their new responsibilities beforehand so there’s no surprise work on their plates
  • Helps you create more realistic milestones and project deadlines, in turn improving operational efficiency 

The first step for project managers here is to meet with their team to review what realistically goes into completing projects. Doing this with your team helps you determine if there are any steps in the workflow that you can prune or bundle together to save time.

As you complete the review, break down all the work that goes into completing different types of projects into a list of steps to be done.

Then, add subtasks to these steps if needed. Or create quality-control checklists that guide employees to deliver only quality work. Remember: when the workload is high, employees can sometimes rush the work, impacting its quality, which is where checklists come in handy.

It’s also important that at this point, you allocate new responsibilities to your staff. This way, everyone will be aware of the additional work they have to take on, helping streamline the process further. It also saves team leads from sending staff last-minute requests.

2. Determine creative solutions to completing projects

Out-of-the-box thinking is an effective, time-saving way to handle individual projects.

For instance, a content marketing agency tasked with publishing content on their clients’ marketing channels may introduce content repurposing to their client.

In that, instead of creating net-new content for each channel, the agency can brainstorm ways to reuse the content they’ve already created by packaging it in different formatting — turning a blog post into a video, for instance.

The key to success with this approach to prioritizing project work is creatively explaining how the new way of doing things will benefit the client.

Going back to the content repurposing example, an effective way to position it as a solution is to inform your client(s) about how the strategy will offer them more value. For example, it can help them better distribute their published content and make it accessible to different segments of their target audience.

3. Determine ways to give employees more focused work hours

In his bestselling book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport defined deep work as:

“Professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

In addition to these benefits, deep work also helps your team quickly complete higher priority projects in time. Think of it, really: can someone focus on their projects better in a distracted, notifications-fueled environment or when they get a quiet space with no ping-pong of notifications?

Considering context-switching and multitasking negatively impact productivity, it’s a good idea to introduce deep work to the company on the whole. Some ways to do so include:

  • Cut back on unnecessary meetings

In fact, before inviting someone to a meeting, everyone should ask themselves whether the meeting is really needed, and which participants’ presence is actually required.

Also, replace your daily status meetings with short Slack updates. Alternatively, if you’re using a powerful project management software such as Runn, you can effectively review the work each person has completed without having to ask them to update you.

  • Move to async communication

Asynchronous communication is a team communication style that doesn’t require immediate responses from team members (as are required when on a call or face-to-face meeting). 

One way to move to async communication is by making it a policy for team members to review project briefs as soon as they’re handed to them. This way, they can send in their questions to you or to a teammate they’re coordinating with before starting work.

In turn, this helps them dive into deep work and give others the space to do the same too — without feeling the need to immediately answer others’ questions before finishing their work at hand.

It's also a good idea to use screen-recorded videos to communicate project briefs, updates, feedback, and more. Using a tool like Loom, you and your team can record details in a short video so others can review them in their own time.

4. Invest in project planning

When you’re understaffed, project planning may come across as another unnecessary task on your plate. 

However, dedicating time to it saves you from project setbacks down the line. It also helps you assign work based on available resources’ skills and strengths — we’ll talk more about this in a bit.

Not to mention, project planning assists in better managing project budgets and timelines based on your new organizational changes. 

Begin with determining the:

  • Work that goes into each project
  • Key skills needed to complete the project
  • Estimated time it’ll take to complete the project 

Next, divide the work into stages/tasks and milestones for tracking progress. Match how many and which resources will be needed to complete the work, what their hourly rates are, and the total project budget.

From there, assign tasks to team members that are a perfect match for the project. Ask them to track time and update you weekly on work completed.

Don’t forget to make sure the timeline for the project doesn’t clash with other project deadlines. You’ll also want to plan to save yourself from a clash in available resources.

The key to saving your time here, however, is by using a project management tool that automates more than half of this entire process for you. This means you’ll have to spend hardly an hour determining who to onboard for new projects, how the budget breaks down, marking project milestones, and so on.

Take Runn, for example. With the project planning software, you can:

  • Schedule projects in real time. Create new projects including the time it’ll take to complete them.

 

  • See how taking new projects impacts your future pipeline. This helps you take on and plan work without worrying about how it’d impact your business in the coming time.
  • Gives you a full view of the project pipeline. This helps by saving you from taking more projects than available capacity and saving project deadlines from clashing against each other. 

 

  • Track upcoming project phases and milestones. Having visibility into which project phases are underway and which ones are coming up helps you prioritize them instead of working on non-urgent tasks.
  • Schedule tentative projects. This shows you how adding new projects to the pipeline will impact resources’ workload.

 

5. Take the time to allot work based on resources’ key skills

Another way to get projects completed fast without compromising on quality is to assign them to people with the right skills to complete it.

Essentially, every project demands some key skills for completion. As you determine those skills needed when planning projects, look into which of the resources match the skill set required for specific projects.

The best way to go about resource planning here is to create a resource inventory that notes each employee’s key skills, interests in skills they want to develop, hourly rates, and availability.

Again, using an automated resource management tool makes this step quick and easy.

Not only does a resource scheduling tool give you an inventory of resources with their key skills, strengths, and interests, but it also shows you what other projects they are working on in real time.

 

 

By having a bird’s eye view of resources’ availability, you can plan workload to save them from getting overbooked and burned out while preventing clashes in project deadlines.

6. Take on new projects based on your capacity

With layoffs, resignations, or any reason that causes significant changes to your workforce, it’s important to press pause on current projects and new client acquisition for a short time. 

This is uber important for reevaluating available capacity so you can plan workload accordingly. Capacity planning, the strategic process of matching available resources with demand, also helps you:

  • Manage your reputation
  • Maintain work quality and
  • Improve client satisfaction 

If you take on new work without evaluating how well your remaining staff is handling projects already in the pipeline, you’ll only overwork them. Eventually, such an approach can snowball into bigger problems such as poor work quality, poor client reviews, and negative word of mouth.

However, by correctly prioritizing your projects using the prioritization framework and ways we’ve shared above, you won’t have to say no to new work.

But for you to reach this point, it’s essential to reevaluate your new workflow, reassign responsibilities to avoid surprises, assign work based on employees’ interests, and create a culture of deep work.

7. Bring in part-time contractors or freelancers

If your project planning software shows employees are at full capacity and can’t manage to complete projects in your pipeline, it’s best to plan in advance.

To this end, bring in contractors to take on the surplus work. Hiring them is much more cost-effective than hiring (and spending time on hiring) a full-time employee. But the key here is to effectively brief the contractor on your:

  • Client and project requirements
  • Business goals and objectives
  • Work processes 

If you find yourself working with 2-3 contractors, it’s best to document the above to save time on briefing and onboarding contractors. 

Ready to prioritize projects?

To summarize, start with determining which clients are the most important to your business. Then, identify which of their work is the most urgent using the Eisenhower matrix. This will give you an action plan for which projects to schedule first, second, and last. 

As you redistribute employees’ workload, make sure you assign work based on their skill set and the current tasks under their to-do tab.

It’s also important you identify and set clear expectations about the new responsibilities expected from the remaining staff. And create a focused work environment for them to get more work done.

In all of this, be sure to save your time by using a powerful project management software that helps you with project and resource planning.

 

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