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Why Successful IT Prioritization is More Than Just Bottom-up Planning

By: Michael Simms


Most companies are faced with developing a budget and business strategy and safeguarding their industry competitiveness amid competing priorities and ceaseless technological change. As a company’s context evolves, so, too, must its approach to IT prioritization. Whereas a company may have once employed Six Sigma, it may now apply Lean Six Sigma; whereas its projects may have formerly been managed through the Waterfall framework, they may now be transitioning to Agile; and whereas the company may have previously relied on traditional enterprise funding models, it may now need to explore decentralized funding models.

With so many trends, formulas, and innovative project tools in play, some companies understandably struggle to prioritize IT projects and programs. In my experience, these struggles usually stem from a fundamental misalignment that is rooted in two major factors: (1) the absence of a combined planning process that aligns corporate strategy planning with annual IT project planning and (2) a lack of input from those in charge of a company’s financial planning.

Bringing Every Stakeholder into Alignment

Whenever I begin working on strategic planning with a new client, one of the first questions I ask is, “How close is the IT project management office to the corporate strategy team?” In most cases, the answer is, “Not very.” In fact, it’s typical for a company’s corporate strategy group to work with the heads of each line of business to create a three-year strategic roadmap while, in an entirely separate effort, the company’s project management office (PMO) works from the bottom-up with delivery managers and IT leaders to develop its list of projects and programs that will receive funding. Naturally, these siloed plans end up out of sync, creating a disjunction between corporate strategy and the tactical work intended to support it.

One of the simplest proactive remedies for this disjunction is a combined planning session. Bringing together a company’s corporate strategy team, IT planning group, and PMO ensures that everyone is exposed to the same information about the company’s larger goals and priorities. It also provides a forum in which to develop synergy between high-level enterprise planning and “in-the-weeds” tactical execution.

Ensuring You Can Pay for Your Priorities

To illustrate the pitfalls of tackling IT prioritization without the input of a financial planning team, I’ll lay out an unfortunate scenario that I have encountered many times in my career.

In this scenario, a company’s corporate strategy team and its PMO have worked hard to achieve synergy. The PMO then spends several months prioritizing projects and building the associated business cases, only to receive annual budgets that don’t include adequate funding to support these priorities. As a result, despite having already sunk a great deal of time into the endeavor, the PMO must revise its recommendations for prioritization, striking a blow to the team’s collective morale.

The obvious lesson that can be drawn from this scenario is that financial planning is an integral part of any sensible approach to IT prioritization. Without their financial colleagues at the table when IT priorities are under discussion, the PMO cannot be certain that its plans are financially feasible.

A Comprehensive Approach to IT Prioritization

In our ever-changing business and technology landscape, organizations must adopt a comprehensive approach to strategic IT prioritization — or risk unacceptable levels of waste, inefficiency, and frustration. This effort begins with the inclusion of corporate strategy and finance stakeholders in IT’s annual planning process. In this way, all parties can move forward with the assurance that IT’s priorities accord with both corporate goals and budgetary realities.

Michael Simms


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