Setting Business Priorities - An Easy, Effective Tool

March 21, 2019

How do projects get approved in your organization? Business owners have to forge through jungle of unsolicited marketing proposals, news on trendy tactics and tools, and projects pitched by employees or contractors. All these things vy for attention and resources.

It's not uncommon for decisions to be based on:

  • The confidence, persuasiveness, or insistence of the person pitching the idea (i.e., salesmanship)
  • What another organization or competitor is doing
  • Something recommended in the latest issue of a business or industry publication.

How do you set business priorities? Here's a clever, simple way to do it, from a successful small business owner.

business priorities

Meet Sam Decker

Sam Decker is a digital entrepreneur, marketing heavyweight, and the founder of digital optimization wizards Clearhead.

Years ago, when he was working as Dell's website manager, he hired conversion optimization guru Bryan Eisenberg to analyze that site and make recommendations for improvement.

His review completed, Eisenberg handed Decker a 75-page report of recommended changes.

Decker’s response: “Okay. Well, go fix it.” But as Eisenberg recalls, the consulting team couldn’t just go "do" 75 pages of fixes. They needed a priority roadmap including where to start.

Decker then came up with this simple but effective tool for prioritizing website projects. If you're a small business or nonprofit looking to move beyond the "debate and confer" method of project prioritization, this is a good place to start.

It can be used for a single project, like a new website or improving a website. Or it can be applied to any digital project conceived as solving a key problem for the customer base.

Problems Worth Solving

It's critical that the potential items to be sorted in the priority tool are problems worth solving. It's easy to start with solutions. That's how ROI gets diluted. Start with problems instead.

Who participates in identifying problems to solve (projects)? "Only employees who know what your customers want, which projects best meet those needs, and the relative impact of those projects on the challenges at hand—not to mention the bottom line—should participate in the creation of the spreadsheet," explains Decker.

That advice is actually part of Clearhead's Problem Solution Mapping methodology, but it applies equally to this simple priority tool.

Score Your Small Business's Digital Priorities

Create a grid with a column listing the potential changes. Then score each item according to Time, Business Impact, and Resources required. Use a scale of 1-5 for each parameter (1 being the worst, 5 being the best).

Time: This is an assessment based on days to execute + time until impact can be noticed.

Business Impact: Magnitude. (Will the proposed change affect a big micro-funnel, a small one? Will it affect many segments, a few segments? Is it expected to result in a significant positive change or a tiny change?) (5 = most impact, 1 = lowest a/k/a least impact.)

Resources: How many of your resources will enacting the change take + do you have them available? [E.g. Changing a word on a checkout button (Resource score: 5), vs. taking a whole team to rewrite something significant (Resources score: 1, or “worst”).]

Once the proposed projects have been scored, multiply each row and prioritize items with the highest total value. (You could use a scale of 1 - 10; I prefer 1 - 5)

In the example below I've assigned arbitrary scores to 4 undefined projects. The purpose of the chart is to display layout and give an example of how the scoring works.

Proposed actions/changes Time Business Impact Resources Total max possible: 125 Priority rankings
Item A 5 3 2 30 1. Item C
Item B 4 4 2 32 2. Item B
Item C 3 4 4 48 3. Item A
Item D 1 5 5 25 4. Item D

Note: This can also help boost the corporate ‘metabolism’, i.e. going increasingly faster from “light-bulb” to “live.” Also relevant to metabolism: decision-making should be pushed as far down the chain as it can be, not as far up as it can be. The latter results in “hippos” — the highest-paid person — making digital decisions, sometimes with poor outcomes.

Next Steps

Fast-forward from this past snapshot of Sam Decker's work at Dell to his remarkable work as a co-founder at Clearhead. In particular, check out their Problem-Solution Mapping methodology.

You'll eventually want to arrive at the place where team member are required to have hard data to back up the rationale and potential impact of any proposed projects.

Team members should be prepared to use data to answer these questions:

  1. What is the total opportunity?
  2. Can we justify the resources required for execution?
  3. What are the projected results?

Postscript: Where is Sam Decker Now?

Clearhead was acquired by Accenture in 2017. Decker is now co-founder of Fair Worlds, a VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) agency in Austin.

Clearhead's Problem Solution Mapping Methodology

Since their acquisition by Accenture, the Clearhead site has been offline. This link is to the archived version of their page on the methodology. If you're ready for a deeper dive, check out this gem.

Stack the Chips in Your Favor With the Physics of ROI

Are you a solution-led company or a problem-led company? (Also from the Clearhead archive)