There are three common scenarios that generate prioritization decisions outside of an individual or team’s span of control.

Some of the most innocuous appearing prioritization problems come from the decisions made on a daily basis outside of formal prioritization processes. These problems are rarely as harmless as they appear to be. Why are these prioritization decisions made like this? As Monotasking by Staffan Nöteberg reminds us, we should periodically reflect and ask “what is the most important thing I should be working on?” The question and the decisions that stem from how we answer that question is prioritization in action. On a more granular basis, every human decides what is the most important thing they should be doing hundreds if not thousands of times a day every time they decide which key to press next on the keyboard. Many of those decisions have ripple effects that extend beyond that individual’s span of control. While that might sound like an invocation of chaos theory, the impacts are often far more direct. For example, when a coder decides to pull work out of order based on their specialty and jumps over a component needed for an earlier release. That implicit change in priority might place a whole release in jeopardy. In real life, I saw a credit card processor lose an RFP because we were not able to demonstrate a feature in production that had been promised during the sales process. This was all based on someone that wanted to work on another piece of the system rather than the one that was next on the backlog.

This span of control issue is not always a bottom-up issue. Micro-management is a granular approach to prioritization. While telling someone what to do and when to do it is technically within a micromanager’s span of control, more thoughtful leaders see it as an overreach. Focusing on the consequences of micromanagement on prioritization, the micromanager can not be fully aware of the nuances of the work because they are not doing it, therefore, are apt to focus on the wrong action at any specific point. I have managed several people that had previously been micromanaged, each had to re-learn to evaluate the context they were in and make their own decisions. Getting permission to focus on what they thought was right only slowed things down, it did not provide a learning moment.  It was painful but in the end, the team was always more resilient and more flexible as we delivered value.

The third scenario occurs when someone not committed to the current set of priorities “thinks they know better.” This is one scariest prioritization decision because it is often hidden and only shared when discovered. These prioritization decisions are vociferously defended when exposed, leading to further division (not to mention the cost and time for any required rework).

There is no way to stop people from making decisions, nor would you want to. BUT, there is no need for decisions big or small to disrupt strategic or tactical prioritization over the long run.

  1. Ensure everyone understands the true goal of the work. What the outcome is supposed to be, how should behaviors be impacted, how much revenue should the work deliver or costs saved. Understanding the real why, not just the highly polished mission statement provides a basis for making real decisions.
  2. Expose all actions taken and decisions made.  Every action and decision changes the trajectory of a piece of work.  What you don’t know leads to wrong decisions about priorities later.
  3. Sync daily at a team and team of teams level. The daily Scrum is daily for a reason. It provides a platform for sharing changing priorities and decisions.
  4. Continuously build the software to expose unvoiced decisions that can impact priorities.
  5. Mentor or fire micromanagers. If you are hiring people that can’t learn and think for themselves, whoever is doing the hiring ought to be out the door before the micromanagers. All kidding aside, if at all possible try to help micromanagers change before providing a change of venue.
  6. Those that silently undercut decisions on priority because they know better need to work elsewhere.

Most scenarios leading to decisions that impact prioritization don’t need to cause problems if the organization ensures transparency and creates a communication-rich environment.