It’s no secret that last year was a difficult one. Safety precautions that were necessary to help contain the spread of COVID-19 had a negative impact on the economy, and therefore municipal budgets as well. It was also a tough year to be an employee. For those lucky enough to remain employed, it was challenging juggling extra workplace demands (likely on top of extra home demands) and stepping up like never before. Amidst this backdrop, Denver’s Community Planning and Development (CPD) decided to take a proactive approach to planning for 2021. Rather than sit back and react to projects as they came in, they accepted the reality that with a reduced budget and a tired workforce, they would do better to plan for what they could reasonably accomplish, and importantly, what they would have to say no to.

Here I want to share an overview of their process in hopes that you may be able to leverage it to prioritize your own work. This is an incredibly powerful exercise that has utility in all environments, but most especially when facing a resource shortage.

Identify High-Level Priorities: First, they identified key priorities through which to vet their projects. They started by going back to their mission and using that as the foundation. A mission statement serves as a tool to help keep organizations in scope. CPD leveraged it for exactly this and answered the question, “does this work align with our mission?” as the first vetting tool. From there, they identified three additional criteria by which to assess their projects.

Take Stock of All Potential Work: After they had a guiding framework, each division leader went through and started taking inventory of all the possible work for 2021. Before prioritizing, they needed to understand everything that was on their plates and in the queue.

Prioritize Identified Work: Next, they started breaking out what they would try to accomplish, and what would need to go on the backburner. To do this, they used the high-level priorities they identified as a guide, in addition to the following questions:

  • What is the effort?
  • What is the impact (on the community, on other teams, on future work)?
  • How likely is success?
  • Is now the right time?
The impact/effort matrix tool can help prioritize

Coordinate Across Groups: Once they had this information for the individual divisions, they came together to coordinate across divisions. In many respects, this part is the most important, but the easiest to overlook. Because all the divisions are interconnected, if one of them takes on a project, it has downstream effects on other divisions. However, if the other divisions are not prepared to take on that work, they are left scrambling and other projects can be negatively impacted.

Develop a Cadence to Reassess: CPD finalized their priorities at the beginning of the year, but they understand that throughout the year, things will shift and their priorities might need to as well. They are planning to revisit this on a quarterly basis and make adjustments as needed. This is a thoughtful way to make some commitments while also recognizing that throughout the year, things change and so we need to be flexible.

As a result of their efforts towards this project, CPD has a shared understanding across all divisions of what will be priorities for the year and what will have to be put on hold. This will help them reduce staff burnout, have better communication across divisions, and manage a tight budget. We commend CPD for continuing to plan in the face of uncertainty, while also being adaptable and recognizing there will be unknowns.

Whether you’re planning for a whole agency, or just for yourself, using this similar process can help you focus on what matters most and better manage your time.

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