Priority and Direction Are Related

Prioritization is a critical component of a work entry strategy. Prioritization answers the question of which “stuff” should be delivered and in what order. A simple but solid prioritization process will include:

  1. A transparent and unambiguous definition of what priority means.
  2. An approach to applying that definition so that we generate a list or lists in ranked order.
  3. An approach for allocating the resources, people, and attention the organization has available.

Most definitions of priority are an indication of whether one item is more important than another combined with an order of precedence. This simply means doing more important things before doing less important things. This definition fits well with Merriam Webster but gets a bit iffy once work gets refined, planned, and the real world gets involved. The order work starts to reflect the initial priority (some mix of prioritization and cheating – jumping the queue) while the real priority is the effective priority reflected in the order work gets completed. Getting something done is the ultimate expression of the importance the person or team perceives the item to have. As noted in “What is Priority?”, the term important is ambiguous and a reflection of some mashup of personal biases unless explicitly defined.

Step One: Defining Importance

Any definition of the term importance needs to be anchored by the strategic and tactical goals of the organization. If those are glittering generalities (not measurable) reframe the goal(s) into something tangible. Areas such as:

  1. Customer Experience
  2. Customer Care
  3. Client Outcomes
  4. Quality
  5. Cost reduction
  6. MarketShare
  7. Revenue Enhancement

All of these are solid, measurable attributes to gauge importance. The less ambiguous you can make the attributes of importance the easier it will be to communicate to all stakeholders. Combining multiple attributes  (for example market share and revenue enhancement) to generate importance requires agreement on some form of relative weighting. Relative weighting often becomes a deterministic system that does not respect nuance. I have always found that a modicum of human intuition and intervention is useful especially during times when trends are ambiguous. 

Step Two: Using the Classic Importance/Urgency Matrix

Planning tools, spreadsheets (easily the most common), and/or visualizations are tools for translating importance and urgency into priority. The Eisenhower Matrix, the classic four-box matrix, is a tool to visualize the relationship between importance and urgency. The goal of the matrix is to show everyone the work that is both important and urgent. This approach also serves to highlight items that are not very important and not very urgent. 

There are all sorts of variations on the Eisenhower Matrix. I have several colleagues that use a 9 box version of the approach to help visualize priorities more granularly. Defining what each box means increases the upfront cost of using their approach but the additional granularity pays off when organizations have a large portfolio of work.

Step Three: Allocating Work

Developing a priority list is an excellent step toward meeting organizational goals. The next step in the process is a matter of queueing approach.  Monotasking by Staffan Nöteberg suggests an approach of doing one thing until done and then time, effort, and money shift to the next priority. The idea of monotasking is important for tasks and projects, in larger organizations there are ways to have multiple independent streams of work, each monotasking. Whether monotasking or some other approach is used to take work, everyone needs to understand and respect the priority queue. Without an approach for taking work into a team, chaos emerges. Easily the most common is to start everything and then to try to keep as many balls in the air until someone screams which effectively reestablishes the priority list.

How a team or organization prioritizes work does not have to be complicated but it is rarely simple. It is far easier to assume that everyone understands words like important and urgent.  And that priority order equates to a delivery order. But, and it’s a big one, unless you define the process you will never be sure everyone is on the same page.  One last piece of advice, make it only as complicated as it needs to be and no more.