Have you ever noticed how much time and energy people spend on activity that isn’t very impactful?
Over the years I’ve been involved with and driven dozens of prioritization exercises, usually a long list of projects in a spreadsheet to which resources need to be allocated (or not). As you start going down the list the conversation turns to defining the criteria for prioritization. After 20 or 30 items the exceptions start piling up and the criteria don’t quite adapt. After 50 or 60 items everyone is wiped out and the 3-hour meeting is over with half the items unprioritized.
Faced with sorting out this kind of morass I’ve found myself gravitating again and again to a technique that adds a lot of clarity for me: distinguishing priority from urgency. I’ve short-circuited some of my binary friends with this logic so I thought I’d better lay it out. It comes down to a simple rule:
• A priority task is the one you want to start work on first.
• An urgent task is the one you want to finish first.
A priority task is the one you want to start work on first. The potential impact is the greatest and thus the scope is often larger than other projects—requiring more think time, more design time, more coding time, more iteration. Sometimes it’s actually a good idea to stretch out the calendar on a project like this to give it room to breathe. That’s not to say you invest more hours in it, but only that you spread out the hours across a longer period. Among other things that creates room for more “urgent” projects.
An urgent task is the one you want to finish first. If you have an outage or a crashing bug that’s affecting a number of people, it’s urgent. Even if it’s relatively benign it’s still urgent because the damage will grow over time and it doesn’t cost any more to fix it now than later. Sometimes a project is urgent just because of the calendar, or the weather. Even if it’s not that important, it can have value if it’s done fast.
When you rate every line item against both criteria, the results can be illuminating. They don’t move in lockstep. If you sort out the projects that are both top priority and top urgency, they’re the legitimate firedrills. High priority and low urgency? They’re the strategic projects that can lift the whole enterprise. High urgency and low priority? Think twice.
Add a column to your spreadsheet for scope of effort and it’s even more clarifying. Nothing like a high-priority project with small scope!
Who gets left out? The folks who can’t function unless all work is given serial priority. I don’t know why they’re wired this way. Somehow they expect to throw all the resources at one project at a time. There are good reasons for parallel processing.
Next time you’re faced with a screwed-up project that’s turned into a long list of tasks no one seems to be able to sort out, try it. You might find you can zoom through the list much more quickly this way and get a better result.
For a nice view of the topic from the point of view of personal time management rather than resource allocation, check out http://www.cloudave.com/27/do-you-suffer-from-the-urgency-addiction-more-common-than-you-think/.