Deciding which work to do when is critical in any job and at all levels of the organization. Messing prioritization up leads to waste which can impact both the organization’s top and bottom lines. If the process worked perfectly there would never be any question about what a team should be doing today or tomorrow. Unfortunately, nothing in life is quite that simple or straightforward, especially when people are involved.  Prioritization doesn’t always work for a variety of reasons.  These reasons can be grouped into five categories.

  1. Timing includes cadence, setting time aside to prioritize, and falling prey to the tyranny of the urgent.
  2. Risk Tolerance Mismatches focuses on how organizations and teams balance the exposure of having people and resources in the wrong place or accepting work that fails to meet expectations. 
  3. Prioritizing Outside Your True Span of Control includes the planning equivalent of micromanagement and its alter ego-macro management in which teams and individuals excerpt influence well above their level. 
  4. No Control Over Work Entry describes the all too common practice of having (or the feeling like you have to) say yes to everything in whatever order it appears. Without control over work entry, prioritization is not very effective. 
  5. Poor Approach is a suitcase containing process difficulties ranging from not having a process to believing in a silver bullet algorithm.

In simple scenarios prioritization is a fairly simple decision-making process. For example, Do I get out of bed in the morning and walk the dog or do I accept the consequences? Which do I prioritize, my sleep or my sense of cleanliness? Since I have sleep issues, it is an easy choice in most circumstances. However, if it is raining like crazy or a blizzard, the decision gets slightly more complicated (but not much more). Every activity is a reflection of priorities at that point in time. Even in simple scenarios, there is an implied cadence (every 4 – 6 hours during the day for my dog) and a process. 53 pounds of dog woofs and then proceeds to try to jump in my lap. A team dealing with production incidents, enhancements, and new feature development or acquiring and deploying new hardware face a level of complexity that often results in capitulation and adopting poor practices.  Each poor practice generates different systemic risks.  Risks that unless exposed are tacitly accepted with little or no consideration or mitigation. 

Next: Breaking down the categories exposes antipatterns and potential mitigation approaches.