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.
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 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)

This week we explore the impact of process (it really isn’t a bad word) problems in prioritization. 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.

We also have a visit from Tony Timbol discussing freestyling user story formats in his To Tell A Story column.

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:


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.  


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


The second category of prioritization problems is risk tolerance mismatches. This category focuses on how organizations and teams balance the exposure of having people and resources in the wrong place or accepting work that fails to meet expectations. The process of work entry and prioritization matches the value and the risk of a piece of work to the needs of an organization. Every organization has a risk profile. Some organizations chase projects with very uncertain outcomes for high rewards.  SpaceX and Blue Origin are examples.  In the same industry, United Launch Alliance is far more risk-averse. The risk profile of the organization will impact the projects each firm takes. Accepting work that is outside of the risk tolerance yields stress and increases the likelihood of work that either does not meet the expected return or outright failure. Leading these types of projects can also be career limiting.  Three leading causes of mismatches are:


Prioritization is a topic as old as time. Jon M Quigley pointed me at old Spanish and German sayings about prioritization.  The one that struck me was:

“Who grasps at too much loses everything” (unknown)

In today’s world, losing everything translates into higher technical debt, defects, or problem tickets. None of which sound quite the same, but are all painful. One chronic area that generates prioritization problems is timing. Here are some examples: 

Too long of a planning horizon. Prioritization often requires a lot of time and effort which means prioritization becomes an event held at major calendar demarcations (annual, semi-annual, or quarterly — these are often driven by reporting and financial needs). The real world is usually more dynamic, which means people prioritize work outside of the major events using less rigorous approaches. Long planning horizons can generate other bad practices including:

  1. Urgent work is being prioritized over important work. The person that is yelling the loudest commands attention. The classic Eisenhower Box is useful as a framework to sort through how urgent and important a piece of work is. Importance should trump urgency – easily said, but hard to do without an approach.
  2. Queue jumping. The longer the time between prioritization sessions, the harder it is to assure stakeholders that their needs will be addressed on time. This creates an incentive for stakeholders to try to get someone to start on their work outside of normal channels. Queue jumping disrupts the flow of work and makes EVERYTHING later than it should be.
  3. Team level priority drift. Teams prioritize on a more finite schedule which means they can drift away from the top priority without the involvement of their product owners (or whoever is playing that role – someone always is).

Too short of a planning horizon interacting with a longer work cycle. Continual reprioritization which leads to changes in direction or starting or stopping work at any level is demoralizing or is at odds with rules or principles of iteration-based methods. For example, Scrum resists changing priorities at a team level during a sprint.  Short time horizons lead to anti-patterns including:

  1. Re-prioritization fatigue – Teams get tired of being redirected and either strike out on their own (facilitating queue jumping) or ignore changes in priorities. This is a leadership issue; nip either problem in the bud.
  2. Turnover – Demoralized team members leave or create toxic work environments. Ensuring that there is a match between the planning/prioritization cadence and how teams and groups work is not an esoteric discussion. Mismatches can have huge impacts in the way throwing a pebble in a pond causes ripples that seem to go on forever.

The nursery rhyme about the three bears provides a good metaphor for too-long and too-short scenarios; the goal is to match work cycles, business dynamics, and organizational requirements (not too hot, not too cold, but getting it just right). One solution is to understand what part of the organization needs to have an asynchronous approach to prioritization is value stream mapping.  A value stream is a set of activities that are intended to create and deliver a consistent set of deliverables that are of value to customers.

Next: Risk tolerance mismatches — a people and process problem.

Deciding which work to do when is critical in any job and at all levels of the organization. Messing prioritization up leads to waste which can impact both the organization’s top and bottom lines. If the process worked perfectly there would never be any question about what a team should be doing today or tomorrow. Unfortunately, nothing in life is quite that simple or straightforward, especially when people are involved.  Prioritization doesn’t always work for a variety of reasons.  These reasons can be grouped into five categories.


We continue to explore how prioritization techniques can change over the life cycle of a product. Using a simple product life cycle it is easy to recognize the different strategies embraced by product managers and owners. When a product is new, the goal is to establish a competitive advantage and to develop distance from its rivals. Prioritization methods such as, cost of delay and weighted shortest job first can be used to identify features that can get to market quickly, matching the product strategy. In the growth and maturity phases, models such as Kano expose the distinction between features that excite and those that satisfy. The feature mix is a function of which strategy is being pursued. For example, overweighting new features during growth will be useful, however as the product matures more and more legacy functionality needs to be maintained. Maintenance costs increase as more and more legacy functionality is accumulated leading to an inevitable decline. Prioritization, at this stage, leverages impact on crucial clients and/or cash flow to determine what to fix. This why ticketing systems exist and become the primary source of requirements for older products. As products decline revitalization projects/programs are often undertaken in an attempt to resurrect the product — a true cycle akin to rivers in the natural world. So-called next-generation products attempt to shift a product back into the growth phase which requires prioritization techniques again.   (more…)