Where to first?

Most of you know I am re-reading  Monotasking by Staffan Nöteberg as part of our Re-Read Saturday Feature. I thought I had completed my current theme on prioritization when I read the section in the book on kinds of priority. The whole idea of priority is premised on a group of people having a shared perspective and definition. That perspective may vary, which can be troublesome, but I thought that there is at least a rough consensus about what the word means. Steffan dissuaded me of the idea that there was a common framework for thinking about priority. There are many ways to think about priority. In Monotasksing, Nöteberg describes D. W. Houge’s 1970 paper in which he described four kinds of perceived priority.  

  1. Relative Priority – A team will work all priorities at the same time but with more emphasis on the most important. In practice, this is often the case when teams start everything as work is presented leading to WIP issues. Everything is a priority, therefore nothing is a priority.
  2. Spillover Priority – Put all effort to the top priority until it is done and then when done, shift your effort to the next priority.   This is the type of priority Staffan uses as part of the Short List concept in Monotaksing. 
  3. In-case-of-conflict Priority – Teams do everything with equal emphasis unless conflict between projects occurs then they adjust based on the conflict. I see this often when teams apply the squeaky wheel approach to prioritization. 
  4. Completion Priority – Prioritize and do work that can be completed. This approach was recently described by a colleague as a fill-in method or the low-hanging fruit approach. People and teams that use this approach always have a list of shorter items that can be knocked off quickly that they use to fill gaps between larger items. Priority on that list is not explicitly linked to value but rather to duration. This is a weighted shortest job first approach without the value weighting. 

Hogue’s perspective shows that is a wide range of ways to use and define priority. On reflection, the idea that different people have different frameworks to define priority and then use their definition to allocate people and resources should not have come as a shock as we have explored other methods on this blog before.  For example, another approach to defining and assessing priority is the classic Eisenhower matrix. This approach uses importance and urgency as a tool to define priority. For example, items that are important and urgent should be done BEFORE items that are urgent but not important. 

Paul Spicker’s paper, What is a priority? (Spicker) outlines a third approach.  The paper suggests that there are five kinds of priorities.  They are:

  1. Priority as importance. One item is more important than something else. Implementation of the word important is a matter of context and biases. 
  2. Relative Priority. Importance is a function of set weights that can be allocated between options to generate a decision on the priority of an item.
  3. Precedence. Priority is defined based on whether one option has to be dealt with before another option. 
  4. Priority as special status. Priority is influenced by specific attributes that must always be taken into account. Set-asides are a form of special status. An organization I worked with required a percentage of all work to be for tech debt reduction; it had special status. In many organizations, specific products have special status and are considered first for people and resources. 
  5. Lexical ordering. The order of items imputes priority. In the same organization, UI/UX was listed first on the priority list because they affected users. Lexical ordering is often influenced by other factors such as special statuses. 

Spicker approached defining priority in a medical setting, however, the logical construct is useful for defining how we can create a framework for knowing what to do next. At its heart, priority is merely a construct. Left to our own devices each of us uses our own bias to determine what is important. Whether you leverage the ideas of Houge, Eisenhower, or Spicker is far less important than adopting a framework and then ensuring everyone understands it.

Next, we will combine the ideas of all three approaches.


Spicker, Paul. “What is a priority?” Journal of Health Services Research & Policy, vol. 14, no. 2, 2009, pp. 112-116. (Downloaded 8/10/2021)