The importance of prioritising at all levels
Being faced with multiple strategic and operational challenges at any one time, whilst maintaining day-to-day service levels and making progress towards agreed organisational improvements all within limited levels of resource inevitably calls for a stringent approach to the prioritisation of institutional activity.
Indeed, prioritisation is a management discipline that needs to be exercised successfully at all levels of strategic planning and implementation, whether in reference to what targets make it into your vision statement, what objectives you set to realise your vision within your strategic plan and what activities you choose to devote most resource to achieving in pursuit of your objectives.
Clearly it is important that decisions regarding relative priority are made not on a whim or the personal preference of an individual, but according to a rigorously applied set of criteria which not only helps to create an objective definition of importance but also helps quantify the implications of not proceeding with it.
Prioritising your strategic objectives
An obvious starting point in this process is by determining how closely aligned the activity in question is with the strategic objectives outlined in your plan. If no link is discernible, or is of a distinctly weak and tenuous nature then obvious questions should be asked as to why resource should be devoted to it. But this alone is not enough to effectively decide where your priorities should lie – especially when faced with multiple, equally worthy, candidates.
There are numerous tools and techniques designed to identify the relative importance of competing proposals and suggestions.
When it comes to agreeing high-level strategic priorities, such as determining which objectives should form part of your strategic plan for the next three to five years techniques designed to assess the broader context within which the institution operates such as Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal and Environmental (PESTLE) analysis can be valuable.
Using a Boston Matrix can assist in determining the relative demand for and popularity of your offerings and how this is likely to change in the future.
Prioritising your activities in support of your strategic objectives
Once your strategic objectives have been agreed, use of a balanced scorecard helps you think about your organisation from four different perspectives and to question how the initiative under discussion will impact these four aspects.
Our funded espida project is based on a balanced scorecard approach and uses it to aid in the creation of business cases for proposals that may not necessarily offer immediate financial benefit to an organisation, but rather bring benefit in more intangible spheres.
Techniques such as Clariscope and using an urgent/important matrix can all help to reach agreement on where best to target resources as part of a transparent and objective options appraisal process.
It may, of course, be the case that all the options on the table seem equally worthy of attention. Perhaps they are all closely aligned with the institution’s strategic objectives and could all be reasonably described as both urgent and important.
On such occasions it may help to differentiate between the choices available by considering the consequences of not doing them. This is the logic behind the concept of a change variable template.
It is important to note, however, that some proposed activities may, on the surface, seem less important than others when compared in isolation and on a ‘like-for-like’ basis. This risks overlooking the fact that a task which seems relatively inconsequential may actually form a vital ‘link in the chain’ and represent a critical element in the completion of a much more important target. This points to the fact that what is also needed is an appreciation of the activity in its true context.
This is something which precedence diagramming and critical path analysis can help you to define.
Though all of the above techniques have their own strengths and weaknesses the adoption of any one or combination of them should pay dividends simply by demonstrating to staff that there is an objective and transparent decision-making process in place.
Communicating institutional priorities across the institution is an important part of this process and another reason for engaging in the kind of ongoing, constructive and open ‘strategic conversation’ with staff that has been referred to throughout.
Adopting a prioritisation matrix can play a useful role in this regard by clearly articulating what the institution’s priorities are and how competing proposals have been assessed against them.
Boston Matrix - helps you decide which products you should be investing in
In managing your portfolio you are striving to lead a process of continuous improvement towards a particular set of strategic objectives. It can be helpful to have a way of visualising the portfolio at any one time and matching this against where you want to be.
A simple tool for doing this is the Boston Matrix (named after its originators in the 1970s the Boston Consulting Group). It is also known as the Growth Share Matrix and the Product Portfolio Analysis. The Boston Matrix is a means of helping companies decide which products they should be investing in by analysing their market share.
Although framed in the language of business the concepts are equally applicable to education. If you have a high share of the market in a particular activity (such as a subject area) you will generally be making a profit and enjoying economies of scale. However you cannot necessarily assume that the market will remain static.
Some areas are likely to grow rapidly meaning that the total market share is expanding and there are opportunities for lots of organisations to make money. Others are declining and just because you make money from them at the moment you can’t assume you will continue to do so in the future.
If you are looking at this in terms of projects and programmes your focus may be on particular audience segments e.g. distance learners, work-based learners or research areas rather than particular taught subject areas.
The Boston Matrix places each of the activities in your portfolio on one of four quadrants against axes of Market Share and Market Growth:
The quadrants are defined as follows:
Dogs/Shrinkers - Low Market Share/Low Market Growth
Your market share is low or declining. In many cases this is simply because the market for these activities is declining rather than a weakness in your offer. There may however be opportunities for reasonable returns as a niche player.
Cash Cows/Bankers - High Market Share/Low Market Growth
You are well established in these areas and able to reap dividends without much in the way of further investment. The market for these activities is however not a growing one and you need to estimate whether it is stable or likely to grow/decline in future.
Stars/Growers - High Market Share/High Market Growth
These are areas where there is real opportunity as the market as a whole and your share of it are both increasing. These gains however will not be realised without further development and investment.
Question Marks/Maybes/Problem Children - Low Market Share/High Market Growth
These are high risk areas. There appears to be potential for growth but not without significant further research and investment. This area could also include very innovative ideas where you are currently uncertain of the likely demand.
There is likely to be a typical lifecycle for most of your activities. Commonly this will follow the pattern Maybe – Grower – Banker – Shrinker. However some activities in the Question Marks/Maybes/Problem Children area (especially where they are very innovative) could just as easily absorb effort with little return and move very quickly into the Dogs/Shrinkers zone.
To complete the matrix you need to list your existing portfolio of activities then assign them to the quadrants perhaps using circles of different diameter to indicate the relative importance or resource requirement of each activity. You may find it useful to analyse both your current and desired state or to use arrows to suggest likely movement between quadrants.
The matrix can help you to analyse whether you have the portfolio that you want and whether it matches the type of organisation that you want to be. You can then establish what you need to add or change in order to obtain the desired portfolio.
PESTLE and SWOT analysis - find out the current status of your organisation
These are tools used to find out the current status and position of an organisation or individual in relation to their external environment and current role. They can then be used as a basis for future planning and strategic management.
The PESTLE analysis should be used to provide a context for the organisation’s/individual’s role in relation to the external environment. It covers Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal and Environmental factors. Depending on which elements are included it can also be referred to as STEP, STEEP, PESTEL, PESTLE or LEPEST. Recently it was even further extended to STEEPLE and STEEPLED, including education and demographics.
The process underpins many other analytical techniques, such as Scenario Planning. The factors can be at macro (e.g. World-, EU- or UK-wide) or micro (e.g. institutional or individual) level. Depending on the scope and scale of the exercise being undertaken, you may want to consider for each factor:
- Which of the below are of most importance now?
- Which are likely to be most important in a few years?
- What are the factors influencing any changes?
What are the key political drivers of relevance?
Worldwide, European and government directives, funding council policies, national and local organisations’ requirements, institutional policy
What are the important economic factors?
Funding mechanisms and streams, business and enterprise directives, internal funding models, budgetary restrictions, income generation targets
What are the main societal and cultural aspects?
Societal attitudes to education, particularly in relation to government directives and employment opportunities. Also general lifestyle changes, changes in populations, distributions and demographics and the impact of different mixes of cultures
What are current technology imperatives, changes and innovations?
Major current and emerging technologies of relevance for teaching, research or administration
Current and impending legislation affecting the role
European and national proposed and passed legislation
What are the environmental considerations, locally and further afield?
Local, national and international environmental impacts, outcomes of political and social factors
You will tend to find a lot of crossover – for example policies under political factors leading to legal and environmental factors. You do not need to worry too much about pigeon-holing issues into the right category – the framework simply helps you think about the context as a whole.
Now you have the PESTLE context you can use this output to map out a SWOT analysis. SWOT stands for; Strengths, Weaknesses; Opportunities; Threats
A traditional SWOT analysis would take the context of the PESTLE and analyse how these factors may emerge/impact.
This may be an interesting exercise but often doesn’t lead to anything apart from four lists that are filed away and forgotten.
A SWOT analysis should be a useful tool for planning and marketing strategy. Identify your strengths and weaknesses first because they may suggest some of the opportunities and threats later. There is a tendency for people to play the ‘opposites game’ whereby an opportunity might be identified and then a converse threat that ‘it might not be taken up’.
This is not a threat, threats have to exist now in the present – this is a RISK associated with taking that opportunity and this should be recorded in the risk register. Our risk management guide explores this whole area in more depth.
A better way to map this output more directly into a project plan and/or strategy is to use a 3×3 grid, arranging your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in the labelled boxes. Then come up with some ‘mini strategies’ in the four boxes in the bottom right corner of the matrix, addressing the questions outlined.
Having done this you can use the top left box to either translate the strategies into a task list for a project plan or come up with a strategy or mission statement for whatever topic was the subject of the SWOT analysis.
Balanced scorecard - helps to identify growth, process, customer and financial perspective
The balanced scorecard is a strategic management approach developed in the early 1990s by Dr Robert Kaplan of Harvard Business School and Dr David Norton.
Drs Kaplan and Norton describe the approach:
"The balanced scorecard retains traditional financial measures. But financial measures tell the story of past events, an adequate story for industrial age companies for which investments in long-term capabilities and customer relationships were not critical for success. These financial measures are inadequate, however, for guiding and evaluating the journey that information age companies must make to create future value through investment in customers, suppliers, employees, processes, technology, and innovation."
The balanced scorecard identifies four perspectives from which to view an organisation. These are:
- The learning and growth perspective
- The business process perspective
- The customer perspective
- The financial perspective
Further information on the balanced scorecard can be found at The Balanced Scorecard Institute.
Liverpool John Moores University, in collaboration with Oracle, is developing an executive dashboard - a strategic management tool based on the balanced scorecard approach. John Townsend, of the university reported in a paper to EUNIS 2005 that:
"The balanced scorecard approach and the associated Oracle technology provide a very powerful tool for managing change – and force you to ask hard questions with inevitable consequences: “Where are we going?…How will we know when we get there?… How will we get there?… Are we there yet? … How can we tell where we are now?… The data must be accurate and meaningful… Who gets the data?… Change management… means changes in the way we work… but this doesn’t happen of its own accord and there is a major communication and marketing effort to go with any such initiative…
This change is not a foregone conclusion… What about people?"
Clariscope - develop clarity about outcomes and generate ideas to achieve them
All too often change does not succeed because there is no clarity as to what exactly it is trying to achieve; checking stakeholders’ perceptions and reinforcing clarity in communications and the scope for the change helps ensure that the message is clear, and that those involved are working towards the same goal.
Clariscope is a decision-making tool that can help to build consensus and enthusiasm around the change initiative, provide a clear message of what is wanted of whom by when, and check perceptions and understanding of the scope of change. It assumes that the intended outcome of the change is known – but not the means by which the change will be achieved.
It is best used in a group context and can be used at the team, departmental, faculty or institutional level.
The scope of the planned change is the topic for a brainstorming session. The key question to be asked is:
What is it that we could do to effect the change we are seeking?
Once the ideas have been collected (on a flip chart or even better each on a series of post-it notes) the next step is to decide which of these ideas are necessary for effecting the desired change, which are desirable and which are out of the change process.
In making this decision there will be a number of factors to be considered:
- How far should we stretch ourselves?
- What time do we have?
- How much resource will be available?
- Do we have the staff expertise?
This should lead into a discussion which clarifies precisely what the change means. There are a number of ways in which this step can be handled but it’s probably better to get each member of the team to work individually and follow this up with creating a shared vision. This allows the different perceptions and priorities of the individual members to surface and be discussed. The final set of priorities is then owned by the team rather than being seen as driven from the top down.
One possible approach is:
- Each member has post-it notes and writes one thing which could be done on each
- These are put on the walls and people walk around and review them
- Each member is given ten votes to apportion to those ideas which he/she feels are most important
- These are then divided into three groups: essential, desirable and rejected. Rejecting ideas at this stage may be ruthless, but at the same time crucial for the success of the change. Rejection does not mean that the ideas aren’t good ones – just that they’re not central to the change or are unrealistic at the current time.
- Finally agree on what is in and out of the change process and how each area will be taken forward.
Urgent/important matrix - identify tasks at the beginning of a project
A useful way of planning your tasks as a team is to use an “Urgent and Important Matrix”. This is a particularly good tool to use at the beginning of a project as you are able to identify the tasks at an early stage and disregard those tasks which are viewed as being not urgent and not important. For the purpose of group planning you could use the matrix on a flip chart and simply write the tasks on post-it notes and stick in the relevant quadrants.
At the end of the process you will be able to devise action plans for the important and non-urgent tasks and begin working on these straight away. The purpose of tackling the important and non-urgent tasks is to ensure that these don’t become important and urgent. If you spend all of your time concentrating on the urgent and important tasks you will just be firefighting. You need to be proactive rather than reactive.
This type of planning can be used for either individual or team planning.
Change variables - provides a view of how change may look
Large scale change may require changes in a number of aspects of the way in which the institution, faculty or department operates. This tool provides decision-makers with a picture of what the consequences might be if the change is, is not, or is partially implemented in each of these areas. Looking at the change variables and possible implementation outcomes can provide a supportive argument when creating a compelling case for change and hence gaining support.
A change elements matrix can be prepared for the whole of the institution, for a particular stakeholder (staff, or students, or businesses), or a particular department or grouping undergoing change.
The tool looks at different aspects of planned changes and asks for each:
- What would happen if the change is not implemented?
- What would happen if the change is partially implemented?
- What would happen if the change is implemented?
(The degree of differentiation will depend on how detailed a picture you want to create.)
The first stage is to identify the ‘change elements’. What is it we can control and will need to change to effect the intended change? Examples might include:
- Service delivery
- Staffing issues
- Financial resources
- Training and development
- Collaborative links
|What would happen if we..|
|Do not change?||Partially change?||Change effectively?|
|Select list from questions above plus your own suggestions.|
Scheduling, precedence diagramming and the critical path - a tool to map out project activities
Planning the project activities helps us to work out and clearly communicate what we need to do, who needs to do it, and in what order. One of the big reasons that some projects fail is that the list of activities to be undertaken is incomplete or isn’t collated into a coherent plan. By first thinking of the products that are needed, it can make this task easier.
Produce the product breakdown and agree this as the key milestones and phases with the sponsor/project board.
Agree the major tasks required with the project team. Writing each task on a post-it note can help. This leads to what is sometimes called the Work Breakdown Structure.
People with the most knowledge and/or experience should then compile the detailed activity list. ie, break down each task into its constituent activities eg,
|Project||Produce a new course brochure|
|Major task||Check the proofs|
|Activity list||Check spelling, check layout, check colours etc|
Establish where any dependencies exist between activities.
Many of the project planning software packages available use the Precedence Diagramming Method. This method plots the tasks to be completed and connects them with arrows that show the dependencies.
Mandatory dependencies are inherent in the work or process e.g. when constructing a new building, building the walls is dependent on laying the foundations. Discretionary dependencies are those defined by the project manager and their team. They should be defined based on best practice or previous experience within the particular area.
Once the dependencies are agreed they can be mapped into a Precedence Diagram (on PC, on paper, or using post-it notes).
When drawing the precedence diagram the project team needs to decide:
Which tasks can only be completed after another task
Which tasks can be done at the same time
Which tasks don’t depend on other tasks at all (e.g. project review meetings)
It can be useful to work backwards when compiling the Precedence Diagram and ask yourself what do we need to have done immediately before this task?
When compiling the diagram you normally represent a task as a box, and link tasks with arrows to show any precedent. There are no loops and at any stage, all preceding tasks must be complete before the following task can begin.
It is possible to draw these from left to right with the final task on the right, or from top to bottom as many people prefer to work this way. As long as your approach is consistent and understandable by the team, there is no reason why you cannot choose your preferred method.
Once the project activities and any precedences have been identified and agreed, you will need to produce a schedule. As well as scheduling activities you may also need to schedule people, money, materials and equipment.
To schedule in detail you will have to establish the following information about each activity:
- The duration (DUR) of each activity – how long it will take to complete
- The earliest start time (EST) – the earliest an activity can start without interfering with the completion of any preceding activity
- The latest start time (LST) – the latest an activity can start without interfering with the start of any subsequent activity
- The earliest finish time (EFT) – the earliest an activity can finish
- The latest finish time (LFT) – the latest an activity can finish without interfering with the start of any subsequent activity
- The “float” time of an activity – the time available to perform the activity less the time needed i.e. time available minus activity duration
- The critical activities are those with zero float. i.e. for a critical activity, EST = LST.
A critical path appears on any precedence diagram (or gantt chart) and links tasks which have no float. You should therefore be able to trace a critical path through your project from start to finish.
- Estimate the time required to complete each project activity
- Calculate the time available to complete each activity
- Calculate each activity’s float, ie, (LFT – [EST + DUR])
- Identify the critical path (zero float activities)
- Calculate the total project duration
- Agree the resources needed and their availability with the executive/project board, adjust resources and/or schedule if necessary
- Agree the schedule with the project team and other stakeholders
- Prepare and publish the project schedule. Using a gantt chart is one way
- Many times the project duration is not the result of the project manager’s estimates or even anyone else’s calculations. It can be a deadline set by funders of the project or senior management as a wished for end date, or as a whim. It is only by doing these calculations that you can ascertain whether or not it is feasible to complete the project within the deadline.
A standard way of scheduling is to add dates and durations to each task box in the precedence diagram that we have seen already.
Prioritisation matrix - helps identify priorities and aids in decision making
Often there are many ideas for change around. Deciding which one(s) have priority can be difficult – especially when there are many vested interests to consider.
Whether the idea for change comes from an individual, a team or department, the enthusiasm and buzz created at the idea generation stage can prevent these individuals seeing clearly someone else’s priorities. People start asking ‘Why can’t everyone see that this is the way forward?’ and this can create friction between the innovative team and everyone else.
So that the enthusiasm and buzz isn’t lost and the individual, team or department are not discouraged, there will need to be a process, perceived to be fair and equitable, to set priorities for change ideas and programmes.
The Prioritisation Matrix is designed to:
- Examine different change processes and allocate priorities
- Be inclusive in recognising the work of different teams and individuals
- Improve the decision-making process
Our thanks for this tool go to the University of York where it is being used to help their decision-making processes.
To construct your own matrix, you will need to decide on the factors for priority setting. This is something which will be dependent on your own circumstances but factors you might want to consider include:
- Is there a link between the proposals and the strategic objectives of the Institution?
- What would be the impact of the changes on stakeholders in terms of, for example:
- Process improvement
- Cost savings
- Time saving
- Student satisfaction
- Student retention
- What are the financial implications for the institution?
- Conduct a cost benefit analysis
- What would be the implementation costs?
- What risks would the institution be taking if the idea is developed in a change programme?
- What is likely to be the level of resistance? Is there a danger of undertaking too much change at any one time?
- Do we have the human resources with adequate skills to develop, implement and maintain the changes?
- Is there a need for training and development to be put in place for staff to lead and/or facilitate the change process?
- What is the urgency of the change?
- What is the wider level of support for the change? What level of approval will be needed to develop the initiative? Will it be difficult to get this support?
- Is there a community of practice, steering committee that can assess objectively/back up the change proposals?
- Is the timing right?
- How long is it going to take to implement the change?
The Prioritisation Matrix involves:
- Agreeing a process for developing and implementing the matrix
- Deciding on what the priorities are
- Deciding on the weighting/rating scale to be used
- Making the prioritisation matrix readily available to individuals/departments
- Allocating a date for the review
Just on its own, the prioritisation matrix will be a reserved tool for decision makers, and won’t be fully beneficial to the institution. Making the matrix available to staff can:
- Improve the quality of decisions
- Demonstrate the institution’s commitment to continuous improvement and achieving a culture of change
- Assist with communicating why change is important
- Gain greater trust through greater transparency
Deciding what weighting/rating scales would be appropriate can be difficult. A simple scale has greater transparency – a more complex scale leads to detailed debate about interpretation but can provide greater flexibility.
You could decide that you would like to use a Lickert scale (one to five), or any other scale; or if you are faced with, say, four change proposals, you could rank each from one to ten on each of the priority factors.
Below is an example of what a prioritisation matrix could look like with the opportunity to customise it and make it fit for use at your own institution.
|Priority Factors||Weighting factor||No Change||Change proposal 1||Change proposal 2||Change proposal 3||Change proposal 4|
|Selected from list above with the ability to add others|