How to keep your next big project on track when you’re struggling to prioritize

By Colum Donahue

When I was preparing to launch my company’s core product­­­­­—a technology management software—I ran into several hurdles that I didn’t expect. I severely underestimated the scope of the build and the amount of time it would take to develop features and product sets, and I definitely hadn’t narrowed my focus enough.

The thing is, I was so immersed in the vision I wanted to achieve—making technology management more accessible to small businesses—that I overlooked crucial details. I eventually had to scramble to finish the projects because I didn’t prioritize properly. The time I spent getting everything back on track cost me valuable resources.

Don’t get me wrong. Every project needs to start with a clear vision. But when you work with only that vision, you overlook the pain points you’re trying to solve. Whether you’re building a company, overseeing a large project, or preparing for an important presentation, you need to prioritize. Without it, you’ll be more likely to overlook the steps that you need to take to achieve that vision in the first place.

Follow these three steps to prioritize your next project better:

1. Identify stakeholders, challenges, and solutions

Every project requires you to solve problems for one or more stakeholders. In our case, we wanted to make technology management more accessible for small and midsized companies that lacked the budgets and leverage of their larger counterparts.

While I had firsthand experience with the pain points we were solving, it was crucial to talk to the people the product was designed to help—IT executives, controllers, and company leadership. Doing this allowed me to rank the pain points and commonalities that would let me start building prototypes and mock-ups to get feedback and hone our focus.

Whether you’re scoping a project or developing a minimum viable product, you need to seek feedback to prioritize appropriately. This way, you’ll know what you need to do to solve each pain point, and you can also cultivate buy-in from those who will be affected by your products.

Once you’ve sought feedback, separate the project into manageable parts and define which areas have the most immediate impact. In our case, we presented mock-ups and used prototyping to illustrate how everything would look before we completed the actual work. I erred when I took feedback without mock-ups, and I later realized the difference between nice-to-have features and need-this-(January 17, 2020) priorities.

2. Give yourself leeway when it comes to deadlines

At one of my previous companies, I had a strategic investor who brought in a lot of business by opening doors that I couldn’t. Although I had a good idea of what this meant for the company, I purposely downplayed how fast things could happen—leaving room for any unexpected barriers. This strategy also allowed me to cut projections by more than a third while safeguarding against contingencies. Within six months, I was smashing those projections.

Apply quantitative goals to your project without overestimating what you can do. Everyone loves when you beat milestones, but they’re not so forgiving when you don’t. Be conservative when it comes to what you can accomplish. If you think something will take two weeks, plan for a month.

My team holds coordination meetings three times a week to ensure we stay on track. We designed these meetings to inform team members of impediments, what’s finished, and what’s still in progress. We keep these meetings short and to the point by requiring everyone to stand and by sticking to strict time limits.

3. Adjust course based on feedback

When I started a small business division in one of my companies, I focused on replicating the services and products available to our larger customers. I assumed that what worked for larger clients would also work for smaller customers. But when I spoke with a future small business client, I learned that the company needed something completely different. It was a great lesson in how one piece of feedback can change your priorities for a major project. Adjusting course when necessary allows you to harvest value as you go instead of waiting until the end of the process.

This came into focus in another one of my roles, which involved deploying telecom infrastructure to more than 100 locations. We had technicians who opened new offices, installed equipment, and serviced existing locations, but we didn’t standardize the process. Ultimately, we doubled back to get feedback from the technicians, built a mock-up of our installation process at our main facility, and then duplicated this setup at each location to ensure that we did every job correctly.

The beginning stage of a project is an exciting time. After all, that’s when you get to come up with big ideas. But it can also be overwhelming. Just remember to take small steps, give yourself adequate time, and be agile. As you make progress, you’ll start to gain momentum and confidence—and you’ll avoid the mistakes I made trying to get my product off the ground.


Colum Donahue is the cofounder and CEO of Genuity, a company that helps empower businesses through the use of technology. Donahue is a serial entrepreneur who specializes in helping telecom and technology companies grow revenue and shareholder value.

 

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