Prioritizing Projects with the COST Model



By Elizabeth Harrin

United Kingdom


In my book, Managing Multiple Projects: How Project Managers Can Balance Priorities, Manage Expectations and Increase Productivity (Kogan Page, 2022), I share a number of different methods for prioritizing your workload to make it easier to focus on the projects that really matter. One of those methods is the COST model, a simple way of ordering projects by category. COST stands for compliance, operations, strategic and tactical and in this article, I’ll share why prioritizing your multi-project workload is essential and how to do it with COST.

Prioritizing your workload

Putting projects into a priority order helps you think about how much time and effort to spend on each one. But everything is a priority, right? While you might hear that from colleagues or managers, it can’t be true – and even if it was, it’s unrealistic to expect project managers to work on everything all at the same time. That’s not how work works.

Having said that, if you only worked on the project that is your top priority, you would never make any progress on projects that appear lower down the list. There is a balancing act in ensuring your priority projects get more of your time but the lower priority projects still get some attention – because no doubt your boss expects those to be moved on at least a little instead of ignored each month. In practice, you’ll be spending time on all your projects. While you wait for a decision on a high priority project, you can be moving a lower priority piece of work forward. Use the gaps in higher priority projects to work to focus on other tasks.

Knowing the priority of your projects, and the priority of tasks within your projects, lets you make informed decisions about where to spend your time. Ideally, the project sponsors or your manager will help you identify the priority work on your list. However, if they are unable (or unwilling) to do so, it is up to you to establish the relative priority of what you are working on so that you can effectively manage your own time.

Techniques for prioritizing the work

There are a lot of different ways to prioritize activity. In a survey for Managing Multiple Projects, 30% of project managers reported using more than one way to prioritize. It is OK to use different techniques in different situations, so you don’t need to stick to one method all the time. Popular methods for prioritizing work include:

  • The Eisenhower matrix (42% of survey respondents reported using this)
  • MoSCoW: Must have, Should have, Could have, Would have (20% reported using this)
  • ICE: Impact, Confidence, Ease (18% reported using this).

However, it’s interesting to note that 14% of respondents relied on their professional judgement in an informal way, either by making their own priority-based To Do lists or by using upcoming deadlines from their project schedules.

Given that different tools help for different reasons, I always find it useful to have an overflowing toolbox so I can select the right approach for the right reason. The COST approach is another way of prioritizing projects that might fit your workload.

The COST model

The COST model is a simple way of prioritizing projects by the value they offer the company. COST stands for compliance, operations, strategic and tactical. Projects are categorized into those four groups and then they can be worked on in that order.

Compliance projects are initiatives that ensure the organization meets regulatory and compliance requirements. If these projects were not done, the organization would have to cease operations. Examples include:


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How to cite this article: Harrin, E. (2022).  Prioritizing Projects with the COST Model, PM World Journal, Vol. XI, Issue V, May.  Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/pmwj117-May2022-Harrin-prioritizing-projects-with-the-COST-model.docx

About the Author

Elizabeth Harrin

United Kingdom


Elizabeth Harrin holds degrees from the University of York and Roehampton University and is a Fellow of the Association for Project Management.

Elizabeth is a project management expert and founder of the popular website, RebelsGuideToPM.com. She also runs Project Mangement Rebels, a mentorship and training community for practitioners.

An author of several project management books, mentor and experienced practitioner, Elizabeth prides herself on her straight-talking, real-world advice for project managers which helps them deliver better quality results whilst ditching the burnout.

As a practitioner, Elizabeth has over 20 years of diverse experience in business change and technology projects predominantly in the healthcare and financial services industries. She specialises in helping mid-career professionals manage multiple projects, engage stakeholders and still leave the office on time.

Elizabeth can be contacted via LinkedIn or her website, https://elizabeth-harrin.com.