Prioritization is a form of control over work entry. Tony Timbol (SPamCAST columnist, CEO of Agile Ready, and consultant) would call prioritization a guardrail for the work entry process. Unfortunately, work entry is not always a controlled process which highlights two of the few absolute truths about the world we live in.  

When work entry is out of control the order in which the work is completed is its priority.  This is true regardless of importance or value.  The thing that gets done first is effectively the top priority. That simple report or low impact defect that you can knock out and feel good about checking something off the list . . . you have decided that piece of work is the single most important use of your time right now. 

The second truth is that when work entry is out of control, formal prioritization is a waste of time. The only potential value is that it stops you from doing the wrong stuff or the right stuff at the wrong time but for a short time span when you are actually prioritizing and before you abandon the plan. Formalized prioritization in this scenario might be injurious to those involved and the company as a whole by generating cognitive dissonance. You know what the right answer is and you decide or are told to do something else. 

Why do teams and leaders allow out-of-control work entry processes to exist? It boils down to a few key factors; including poor leadership, lack of political power, and simple misunderstanding. The simple misunderstanding is easily seen when you consider who benefits from poor work entry practices.  

  1. Those with political clout (and lack the wisdom to use it well).
  2. Those that chronically yell the loudest (and are tolerated).
  3. Your friends that have established a quid pro quo relationship (friends might be a loose term).

The simple misunderstanding is that saying yes and starting work improves throughput and value delivery. What it really does is keep everyone really busy, increase costs, and postpones conflict. The postponement of conflict is one of the strongest incentives to continually say yes – we are all optimists. 

Prioritization is a statement about predictability. The priority order states the order work will be delivered. The most important thing should be first. Without control of work entry, there can be no predictability. As someone that has been the victim of poor work entry, I can state that not only was I (and my teammates) frustrated by constantly changing priorities, we felt dis-empowered. One of the principles in the Agile Manifesto states: Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done. Just shoving work into a team and constantly changing priorities is not a way to motivate individuals.