Changing Priorities and Project Management

changing priorities

Working with a client who has many changing priorities can make you feel like you are playing Whac-A-Mole. Changing priorities can be a huge challenge in managing a successful project. But, often clients don’t even realize they are doing it. So, how do you manage a project when priorities are changing without putting it and your relationship with the client in jeopardy?

Scope & Timeline

Defining the scope and timeline of your project clearly at the beginning is a really important step. If the client starts changing priorities, you can point back to the agreed-upon scope and timeline, explaining the priorities were set to meet the overall project goal. Taking things out of order could put it at risk, extend the deadline or make it cost more.

Sometimes, the priority changesĀ becauseĀ a business matter arises that causes a necessary re-definition of the project. If that is the case, it is time to stop and reassess where you are and where you should be headed. Rebuild that scope and timeline and see how it affects the budget.

But, occasionally, you can believe the client is changing priorities when really the client is just talking off the top of his head. He’s just saying what he would like to see done. But, he doesn’t have a clear understanding of the consequences of his request. Sometimes he might not even realize he is making a request at all.

Clear Communication with Consequences

Especially in the last case, share what you’re hearing with the client to make sure you’re on the same page. You can say something like, “What I hear you saying is that you would like me to stop working on the invoice changes that you said were hot last week and start working on the timesheet edits that you have just mentioned.” Make sure he understands that both can’t be done at once. And, he will have to choose.

Explain that when you get part way through work in one area and have to flip to something else, it will take longer to get back to where you were on the first priority. And, that will cause a budget increase.

Many clients don’t understand what they’re asking for, so make sure you are communicating the consequence of their request very clearly so they can make that decision. Regularly scheduled status meetings show the client the progress of the project and permit understanding as to why you are doing something next.

Changing Priorities Requires Organization

If you are organized and have a clear plan, you can better manage a client who flits around like a butterfly. Make sure you have built a project plan in a project management tool like Basecamp or Teamwork. There should be clear timelines and the scope and priorities should be clear. (e.g., “We are working through the list in the order shown and are on target for the completion dates noted.”)

Remember that you are the professional. While it is very important to take your clients’ needs into account, you must educate them on the needs of the project. An undelivered project has no value. It is your obligation to get them to realize the value. Sometimes you have to slow down and make sure they understand the consequences to their requests.

Deliver in Smaller Phases

If your client’s changing priorities are affecting projects adversely and none of the techniques above are working, stop and re-focus the project into sprints. This situation might call for the Agile Methodology. As you decide on small pieces you can deliver in a short span, you can accommodate changing priorities easier. But, you need to make sure your client is on board with that plan. And, they need to agree to stick with the short-term priorities.

Find New Clients

If you can’t control the client’s changing priorities with these methods, you might need to consider letting the client go. Especially if their changing priorities affect your other clients, this option needs to be on the table.

If anyone has had success with other methods, please add a comment below. Changing priorities can be a very tough issue. The more options you have to prevent and solve it, the more we all succeed.

About Susan Fennema

Susan helps you gain control of your business through process development, organization, and structure of your business operations and projects. From developing processes to coaching project managers, she can help you get beyond the chaos.
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