Priorization and direction are intertwined.

Prioritization requires a steady hand and consistency. The process for prioritization should have more in common with a well-oiled basketball or futbol team than five-year-olds playing soccer in the schoolyard. How the moving parts work together is a process, but in some circles, “process” is a dirty word. That reaction leads to all sorts of expensive, and avoidable, problems when processes are abandoned or not fixed. The problem with the knee-jerk reaction, and it is a reflex, to the word is that almost everything in the world involves a process(es) from sex (look it up in WebMD) to making coffee. Even the ubiquitous agile framework, Scrum, leverages processes. The real culprit is not processes, per se, but rather adopting bad or inappropriate processes. Four classic process problem categories that have a negative impact on prioritization include:

Fire and Forget. This category includes all those prioritization processes that never go back and find out the criteria used during prioritization actually panned out. The lack of follow-up to determine if the cost, ROI, increase in sales, throughput or quality that defined impact and importance were true makes it very easy to shade or spin the story to make any piece of work look more important. Doing work that isn’t the most important leaves money on the table and puts jobs at risk.

Solution – Measure the impact of every significant piece of work. 

Random Walk. There is nothing more frustrating than building a case for a piece of work only to find that the goalposts have moved or that the rules you have to play by are not the rules others run by. Once upon a time, I was a department manager at a major financial institution. I worked with great people, did fun work, but the process for getting anything approved changed at least quarterly and sometimes as we were working through the prioritization process itself. Our department required a full-time financial analyst — not an apocryphal statement. When circumstances changed it was hard to react. The process had become so complex and brittle that anything other than an act of god was ignored. We did a lot of stuff that was not as high value as it should have been. A special case in the category is the perception that the rules are not transparent. This is the situation in which different teams or parts of the organization have different criteria for getting work prioritized and accepted. During university, I worked for a firm that was privately held by a single-family. Projects proposed or supported by specific family members always jumped to the head of the list even though sales and profit were the “published” criteria.

Solution – Establish a stable approach for prioritization. Ensure everyone involved knows the criteria and the rules for prioritization. When the process evolves (and it will) make sure all stakeholders are aware. Another part of the solution would be to involve the stakeholders in the evolution of the process. Getting the stakeholders of a process together to design and build the process invokes the Ikea Effect, Dan Ariely describes the effect as “The basic idea is that after we devote effort to something, we have more positive feelings toward it; we become attached.” 

Magical Thinking. Just declaring that a process exists and that the most important work is at the top of the list does not mean that work of prioritization is done. Rarely is there one single key approach or metric that forecasts what will be important next week, let alone next quarter. Prioritization needs to account for differences in evaluation criteria and time horizons without reverting to an ad-hoc approach.

Solution. Break work into smaller independent pieces to reduce priority drift due to longer time horizons. Re-prioritize more often (do this publicly to avoid the perception of capriciousness).

Garbage In – Garbage Out (or Garbage In – Gospel Out). This scenario is fairly common, often caused when the process is a check the box event or when no one does any due diligence on the rationale for why any piece of work is more important than another. Another common cause of this phenomenon occurs when the goal of the organization (or subgroup) is nebulous. Not understanding where the organization head generates crappy decisions because it is impossible to have the proper context.

Solution: Have a prioritization process and use it. Care about prioritization as a way of working. Make sure that proponents for the work are responsible for shepherding it through prioritization and delivery. Make sure someone with the right level of authority is responsible for attaining the results. That individual needs to also have the responsibility for letting the organization know if the context shifts and when to redeploy resources and people.

Poor process leads to doing the wrong work or as bad doing the right work at the wrong time. Most of the time issues in this story are self-inflicted wounds. Have a process, use the process, and make sure everyone understands the process. This doesn’t guarantee you will do the right stuff but it sure increases the likelihood.