Prioritization is a topic as old as time. Jon M Quigley pointed me at old Spanish and German sayings about prioritization.  The one that struck me was:

“Who grasps at too much loses everything” (unknown)

In today’s world, losing everything translates into higher technical debt, defects, or problem tickets. None of which sound quite the same, but are all painful. One chronic area that generates prioritization problems is timing. Here are some examples: 

Too long of a planning horizon. Prioritization often requires a lot of time and effort which means prioritization becomes an event held at major calendar demarcations (annual, semi-annual, or quarterly — these are often driven by reporting and financial needs). The real world is usually more dynamic, which means people prioritize work outside of the major events using less rigorous approaches. Long planning horizons can generate other bad practices including:

  1. Urgent work is being prioritized over important work. The person that is yelling the loudest commands attention. The classic Eisenhower Box is useful as a framework to sort through how urgent and important a piece of work is. Importance should trump urgency – easily said, but hard to do without an approach.
  2. Queue jumping. The longer the time between prioritization sessions, the harder it is to assure stakeholders that their needs will be addressed on time. This creates an incentive for stakeholders to try to get someone to start on their work outside of normal channels. Queue jumping disrupts the flow of work and makes EVERYTHING later than it should be.
  3. Team level priority drift. Teams prioritize on a more finite schedule which means they can drift away from the top priority without the involvement of their product owners (or whoever is playing that role – someone always is).

Too short of a planning horizon interacting with a longer work cycle. Continual reprioritization which leads to changes in direction or starting or stopping work at any level is demoralizing or is at odds with rules or principles of iteration-based methods. For example, Scrum resists changing priorities at a team level during a sprint.  Short time horizons lead to anti-patterns including:

  1. Re-prioritization fatigue – Teams get tired of being redirected and either strike out on their own (facilitating queue jumping) or ignore changes in priorities. This is a leadership issue; nip either problem in the bud.
  2. Turnover – Demoralized team members leave or create toxic work environments. Ensuring that there is a match between the planning/prioritization cadence and how teams and groups work is not an esoteric discussion. Mismatches can have huge impacts in the way throwing a pebble in a pond causes ripples that seem to go on forever.

The nursery rhyme about the three bears provides a good metaphor for too-long and too-short scenarios; the goal is to match work cycles, business dynamics, and organizational requirements (not too hot, not too cold, but getting it just right). One solution is to understand what part of the organization needs to have an asynchronous approach to prioritization is value stream mapping.  A value stream is a set of activities that are intended to create and deliver a consistent set of deliverables that are of value to customers.

Next: Risk tolerance mismatches — a people and process problem.