The Art of Project Management: Expert advice from experienced project managers in Silicon Valley, and around the world

Choosing Between Your Heart, Your Lungs and Your Kidneys

Heart Lung KidneysOne thing is for sure, there is always more to do on any project than there is time or money to do it. And as much as people hate to choose between things that seem equally vital, if everything is top priority, nothing is. Project teams used to ask for a list of “musts” and “wants” of the features required in a product, for example. Now EVERYTHING is a MUST! The “triple constraint” of schedule, cost and features used to mean that the team would maximize one and optimize another while letting the third float. Now teams are asked to deliver good, fast AND cheap all at once, and pull off myriad miracles along the way. Many executives refuse to prioritize the “critical few” from the “important many”. Mostly they look mystified and say “They’re all important.” No kidding!The real casualty of this behavior is the loss of the opportunity to leverage the discernment of each individual in the myriad decisions that they’ll make during the project. When executives and other project stakeholders won’t prioritize quality, features, schedule, cost, and other vital success criteria they deny the individuals on the team the guidelines that they need to align their decisions with overall project goals. Rest assured, without guidance on the relative priority of the goals of the proejct, like on schedule, high quality, cool features, within budget, each individual will be making decisions according to their own assumptions and beliegs about the priorities. No one wants to choose between their heart, their lungs and their kidneys, but when push comes to shove, the heart is #1 because you die within a minute, lungs are #2 because you can live 3 minutes without them, and kidneys are #3 because you can go on dialysis. Of course, if the success criteria aren’t clear, then putting those criteria in priority order won’t be an easy matter, so you have to start by knowing what you are trying to achieve. Unfortunately many teams aren’t even clear about that, so it’s no wonder they can’t make tough choices among competing priorities. How do you get your sponsor and the execs to make those tough choices?


About the Author

Kimberly Wiefling is the author of one of the top project management books in the US, "Scrappy Project Management - The 12 Predictable and Avoidable Pitfalls Every Project Faces", and the founder of Wiefling Consulting, LLC, a scrappy global consulting enterprise committed to enabling her clients to achieve highly unlikely or darn near impossible results, predictably and repeatedly. Her work focuses on keynote speaking and workshops on practical and sensible business leadership and project/program management scaled for the size of the company and the project. She has worked with companies of all sizes, including one-person ventures and those in the Fortune 500, and she has helped to launch and grow more than half a dozen startups, a few of which are reaping excellent profits at this very moment. She spends about half of her time working with Japan-based companies that are committed to developing truly global leaders. Kimberly holds a B.S. in Chemistry and Physics from Wright State University and a M.S. in Physics from Case Institute. She spent 10 years at HP working in product development project management and engineering leadership. She worked with several startups, including a Xerox Parc spinoff where she was the VP of Program Management. In 2001 she launched her consulting practice and never looked back. She holds a certificate in project management through UC Santa Cruz Extension, where she is an instructor in the Project and Program Management Certificate Program. Kimberly spends about half of her time facilitating leadership, communication and execution excellence workshops for leaders of Japanese companies committed to becoming truly global. Thousands of people have viewed the hysterical video documenting the final phase of completing her book at You can reach her via email at
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3 Responses to “Choosing Between Your Heart, Your Lungs and Your Kidneys”

  1. Hmmm, Where this really becomes critical is in situations where there are many masters (sponsors, stake holders) “in charge” and no single person making decisions. So, after compiling the “top” items for each of the executives, you wind up with everything on the “number 1” list. Now add in the joy of doing the same thing across multiple projects and you might as well just kill yourself now rather than waiting for the company to save you the trouble at the end of several failed projects. — Dan

  2. Usually the sponsors and execs are as you say
    a bit like deer in the headlights sometimes so
    what some of us do (including you probably) is
    to present options in such a way that they can
    more easily think about them. Usually these have
    to make it obvious that you die within one minute
    without this, three minutes without that and
    well, there is dialysis or rev 2 two for the third.
    It is a rare sponsor or exec who doesn’t need you
    to phrase it for them in this way so that they
    can then make a decision. PMs should just get
    used to this reality and learn to present options
    or hey, how about a PM class on this? Anyway a
    smart PM may say, hey wait a sec, if I have to
    be smart enough to understand the whole system
    well enough to spoon feed these choices why to
    execs why aren’t I …
    The answer is yes do it someday and I wouldn’t
    want to spoil the question for anyone to whom it
    has not occured.

  3. Who wants to choose between living one minute and three minutes? If so, maybe the heart should be choosen as least important since you will be out of your misery sooner and faster.

    Executives are people too and the response that “everything is important” is human nature. This behavior will always be there so it must be dealt with in a logical manner.

    Believe me when I fly commerically, I often think about the technology around me which is pushing my body at 550 mph at 33,000 feet in a thin, fragile aluminum tube. Ask me whether the wings, tail or engines are most important to me and you can guess what my answer would be!!!Systems are complex and, to function, many components must work together. To the untrained observer, everything is important for the system to function. You can break this gridlock by getting down and dirty with the details. Let’s use what we teach in our PM courses, be SMART.

    Often just prioritzing items on a list is over simplification and cannot convey the essence of the project objectives. The project manager and his team must use their technical expertise to assignment achieveable and measurable parameters to the list of “must haves”, “should haves”, etc. If heart, lungs and kidneys are all must haves then so be it. Now let’s talk about whether this heart will be able to run a 4 minute mile and the lungs be able to have a oxygen uptake of 60 ml/minute and the kidneys are without stones. As you use the SMART criteria smartly you can and will determine what’s most important to your sponsor(s). A simple priority list isn’t always going to do it, it’s going to take more work than that. The results of this exercise becomes the basis of a common understanding for planning, executing and measuring the performance of the project.

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