The Art of Prioritizing Projects
Puijilittatuq—“he does not know which way to turn because of the many seals he has seen come to the ice surface” –Inuktitut, Canadian Arctic
When it comes to the myriad project possibilities that pop to the surface for creatives and business artists, Puijilittatuq is an apt metaphor.
People have repeatedly asked me for advice on how to prioritize which projects to execute now versus later or never.
Here’s the tension for many of the people and organizations with whom I work: Possibilities seem unlimited, but potential is limited. The wide-eyed creatives and business artists I’ve witnessed who flounder amidst possibilities tend to misspend their energy, attention, and potential—all of which are finite.
They get frustrated, even paralyzed by poly-ideation, poly-passions, and poly-possibility.
Best not to be a Pollyanna and think you can do everything and do it right now.
When working on multiple projects, at least one key difference exists between those creatives and business artists who flounder and those who flourish.
Their ability to learn to discern.
Acting on Potential & Possibility
Michelle (disguised name) is a renowned actress who came to me for guidance. Her situation: She’s not only a recognized actress perceived as “having it all together.” She’s also a recognized and talented playwright, short story writer, tv script writer, and more. She has several projects in the pike. And her income streams are not steady. How does she prioritize among the plays to write, the grants to pursue, and that big dream of her having own theatre company?
I meet several accomplished Michelles throughout any given year. I live with my own variations. When we take stock of all the seal head possibilities to pursue, we have the “limited potential talk.”
The Michelle-in-question grows sad. It’s as if I’ve just said she (or he) won’t be able to bring up all the babies seeded. This desire to grow all we’ve seeded, to go after every single seal head that pops up, is an understandable human urge. After all, we human beings as a species have somewhat successfully imitated birds via airplanes, insects and hummingbirds via helicopters, and sea animals via boats and submarines.
How fitting that we’d like to imitate earth itself by being as prolific as the planet.
But unless a creative person is adept at creating a business model with a team that can produce or mass-produce all of his ideas, he’d be wise to learn the art of discernment.
Discernment helps the actor act wisely for the long term – to her benefit and to the impact that her work will have on others.
Some people advise creatives to “follow your passion” on one hand or “follow the profit” on the other. Neither hand by itself is helpful because the creative is not training her mind to discern strategically for the next time it will have to make such decisions.
In other words, our very way of deciding which projects to pursue can be wasteful and ultimately lead creatives or business artists to still feel disillusioned, frustrated, and struggling “after all these years.”
We know, to put it simplistically, that the heart leads the head when we make decisions. We rationalize which hybrid automobiles get the best gas mileage and which SUV’s or vans have the best room for the growing family. Yet, many of us still will buy a car based on subtle factors such as a car’s color, the grip of our hands on the wheel, and how our body hums while driving it.
But when passion and impulse alone lead creatives and professionals over several years, those people often flounder.
The art of discernment is a flexible, repeatable way of deciding and of setting limits on finite potential. My team and I use our W-S.H.I.R.T. indicators to help us and our clients learn to discern which projects merit prioritizing. It’s a way to acknowledge key positive emotions and possibilities and then let those emotional drives converse with more objective factors.
W – S.H.I.R.T. Indicators
This, not that. That, not this. That’s discernment-in-action.
We use six indicators to help individuals and organizations get emotional distance on each project’s importance. The indicators work for long-term planning as well as for rapid-fire seven-minute choices.
The core five are
Revenue Potential and
But the essential drive that gets to our original creative genius isWonder. Each indicator has a core set of questions that help individuals and teams train themselves to discern with heart and head, present and future.
- Wonder Potential – How much wide-eyed possibility does this project crack you open to? What could possibly happen as a result of your pursuing this project sooner than later?
- Skill Potential – What skills and native strengths will this project bring out and even hone?
- Horizon Potential – How does this project get me or my team closer to the desired horizon?
- Impact Potential – What difference will this project make in the lives of an audience or person?
- Revenue Potential – What direct and residual financial return might this project bring?
- Time – Is there a time pressure that makes this project’s execution and completion urgent?
To work with these six indicators, I ask clients or teams to lay out all their pots – all the projects they’re wanting to cook on their project stove, so to speak. We list each one vertically on a Word doc, on a white board, or on a Project Stove Guide we’ve created.
Then we list the six objective indicators indicators horizontally, a column each.
When a novel goldfish of an idea floats by our awareness, wonder is the water. Wonder is our original creative genius that cracks us open to an idea’s possibility. But its pervasiveness makes it all the more subtle and indiscreet like air or water.
Creatives and business artists ignore wonder at their own hazard. So, wonder starts our reflection. I ask individuals or teams to remember what exhilarating and perhaps frightening possibility under-rides a project. Would could happen if this project were realized? What excited you about it in the first place? How does that possibility feel in the body?
We practice dropping into this feeling state and try to locate “somatic markers.” Somatic markers are what Antonio Damasio calls those sensations in the body that help us decide a course of action. (The Feeling of What Happens) These markers light up key networks in our brain that help the emotional brain’s amygdala and the right somatosensory cortex, for instance, converse with the brain’s executive functioning cortex.
Often a person or a team quickly realizes that the project might not possess much wonder potential. In which case, it’s likely that the person or team may not be motivated to execute the project once inevitable challenges arise because not enough possibility is consciously at stake.
Once a person or team has articulated or written down what they consider each project’s wonder potential, then they can rate each project according to this question:
How much possibility does this project crack you open to?
1 = Not at all
2 = Somewhat
3 = Most directly aligned
For each project under the “Wonder” column, they can place a 1, 2, 3 accordingly. The numbers element might seem superficial, but its design is to let the mind use numbers as a playful, non-scientific way to objectify the project’s priority status.
Sometimes, the Wonder Potential is all a person needs to prioritize one project over another, but I usually recommend that person consider the other indicators.
Mastery drives several creatives and business artists. Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, has studied how college students work with goals. Most students are motivated either by performance goals or by learning/mastery goals.
What Dweck discovered is fascinating. Students driven by performance goals (‘to make all As’ ‘to ace this test’ ‘to get an MBA and get a high-paying job’) seek to look smart and to avoid looking dumb more than to learn. They’re concerned with appearances. They believe thatintelligence is a fixed state determined at birth.
Students driven by learning/mastery goals (‘to come up with a new way to use an algorithm’ ‘to refine my mastery of engineering’) want to increase their competence in areas. They enjoy learning for learning’s sake. They are less concerned about intelligence and more concerned about tasks at hand. Consequently, they generally succeed more during difficult times than the other group of students. Over the long term, they’re also generally happier with their lives.
The people who flourish instead of flounder are the ones who size up projects according to the skills they aspire to finesse.
When we finesse our skills and, thus, have a greater impact by developing even a signature style through our work, then we’re more willing to keep facing challenges.
Clients look ahead and break down what skills a project might bring forward or even hone. We can predict a project’s challenges sometimes according to its skills, a process that in turn makes “challenge” more objective – less about the creator and more about the skills necessary to develop and hone in order to meet that challenge with more finesse and less frustration.
Then they consider the Skill Potential question and follow the same process:
What potential does this project have to bring forward or hone desired skills and innate strengths?
The horizon is the Tracking Wonder metaphor for the near-distant vision. It’s where a person or team imagines being within the next 3, 6, or 12 months. To envision the horizon requires considerable work by itself. It requires activating the imagination to envision what kind of work will be created, with whom, and what the desired feeling states are. The imagination and feeling state then work in tandem with setting goals. This inside-out process strengthens the likelihood that the person or team finds personal meaning in the horizon.
The horizon conversation can lead to considerable discovery. The attention alone that the exercise requires gives credence to the horizon and vision. If a person looks ahead even six months, she can realize she may not have to work on every project right now.
This horizon work is most effective when the person or team writes through several processes of actually meeting the horizon.
For over thirty years, social psychologist Timothy Wilson has been studying what interventions really work to change people’s behavior. His book Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change illuminates many short-comings of simplistic ideas suggested by well-intending self-help teachers.
Wilson points to a 2009 study published in Psychological Science titled “Positive self-statements: Power for some, peril for others.”
Here’s Wilson on the difference between Stuart Smalley-like affirmations and a writing prompt that requires people to think through the challenges they will need to face to meet a goal:
“For people with a low opinion of themselves, saying ‘I am a lovable person’ reminds them of all the ways in which they are not lovable, pushing them further into the doldrums.
“The key difference [between affirmations and the writing prompt and other such interventions] is that simply thinking about how wonderful we are does not equip us with strategies to make ourselves so. …Indeed, research shows that people who focus on the process of achieving a desired outcome are more likely to achieve it than those who simply think about the outcome itself.” (68)
Horizon work coupled with Skills Potential work draws from and iterates on these studies.
Once a person or team has defined their horizon, then they can rate each project according to this question:
How aligned is this project in getting me/us closer to my/our horizon?
Seeing impact drives most people concerned about the welfare and interest of others. Teachers, sensitive creatives, mindful professionals – they’re “in it” not just for themselves but for making a difference in the lives of others.
Adam Grant’s research, elegantly distilled in his book Give & Take: The Revolutionary Approach to Success describes how, in study after study and situation after situation, the dedicated teachers who saw incremental impact in their work not only continued teaching in the long term. They also ultimately had greater impact. Their impact was contagious.
I take clients through a series of exercises to help them empathize with their patch of the planet – that well-defined group of people or customer segments whose woes, values, and yearnings my clients must not only understand; they must feel themselves.
A novelist recognizes that her short story could elevate and awaken her readers – even for a few minutes or an hour. A designer-entrepreneur sees that a corporate design gig isn’t too meaningful to her, but she recognizes its value both to her corporate client and to her client’s customer base.
Then they consider the Impact Potential question and follow the same process:
What value will this project bring myself and my patch of the planet? How will it benefit their lives?
Talking about revenue is easier for most business professionals than it is for most creative professionals. Many creative professionals ensnare themselves in two traps. One, they assume an anarchist stance that they’re “not in it for the money.” Two, they assume that work for money is somehow corrupt and impure from other creative work. Without realistically considering various projects’ revenue potential, creative jugglers are more likely to reach 40 or 50 or 60, broke, frustrated, and resentful.
Some business professionals have their own blinders. They might assume a capitalist stance that a project’s merit can be measured only by its ROI. Without taking into account the other potential indicators, these professionals’ projects are more likely to flounder.
When factoring revenue potential, though, we consider not only the obvious direct bottom line financial return. We also consider what residual return there might be. Will a project generate good will for the team or brand? Will a project or offering potentially lead to good brand ambassadorship and word-of-mouth? Could a short piece published in a reputable publication lead to greater credibility and, hence, to a potential book deal, or could a free talk at an organization potentially lead to a paid speaking gig?
The Revenue question is seemingly straightforward:
What direct and residual financial return might this project bring?
Time is not a potential but an element. Time is about urgency or perceived urgency. Does a grant, contest, book publishing cycle, or television script pitching cycle have a looming deadline? Does a project have a pressing launch date? We reserve Time for last among the indicators because, ironically, it’s the one that people often start with. Once they talk or write through all W-S.H.I.R.T. Indicators, though, they come away with a richer, more sensible perspective on which projects should assume priority over others.
A client asked me which she should do: Attend a local event to build up expert interest in health topic 1 she specializes in or create a new video as part of a new offer in health topic 2 that she specializes in.
“I can make the case for both,” she said.
“Let’s don’t make the case for either. Let’s just talk through the W – S.H.I.R.T. Indicators. Okay?”
She was game. Within seven minutes of her talking out her own responses to the above questions, she quickly discerned that her limited time, attention, energy, and resources were better spent creating her video than attending the live exploratory meeting – which likely would be repeated in the near-future.
Even better, by going through the W – S.H.I.R.T. Indicators, she also had trained her mind to think in ways that would help her discern in the future.
The W-S.H.I.R.T. Indicators and method are not designed to be a fool-proof method. But they mark a starting place for teaching the mind to learn to discern which projects to pursue. Over time, with frequent repetition, prioritizing projects becomes less overwhelming and actually more enjoyable.
When seal heads pop up all at once above the ice, prioritizing becomes playful instead of mind-freezing.
Let me know what you think and, if you test out this method, let me know what happens.
Originally Published on November 5, 2013 on Psychology Today
Excellent article, Jeffrey. I really appreciate all your new tools for discernment. It’s always a good idea to step back and take a look at what one is doing, and this is such a great way to do so.
Alice~Thanks for the appreciation. I agree that we can get myopic in the “doing” and “creating” and overlook the why and the why now.
A very practical approach and very timely for myself…I like that I can actually organize my thoughts and impulses into manageable action..