At the end of the year, planning and prioritization take center stage. We can only really prioritize work, needs, and dreams that are within our span of control. That does not stop people from trying to prioritize work that is not theirs to prioritize. 

We also have a visit from Susan Parente who brings her I’m Not A Scrumdamentalist column to the cast.  This month we talk about getting leadership right. It is possible!

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This week we touch on a topic that is near and dear to my heart, work entry, with an essay titled Prioritization Without Control of Work Entry. I am tempted to suggest that without control over what you can say yes to, the whole idea of prioritization is a farce. The answer is more complicated, but only a little. 

We also have a visit from Jeremy Berriault who brings his QA Corner to the cast. This week we discuss measuring testing — it is more than just pass/fail.

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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.
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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.

Bibliography

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

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:

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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.  

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

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Over the past few months, I have been in traffic jams on the highway several times when traveling to our weekly hike.  In more than one instance someone has decided to pull over and drive on the berm.  In more than a few cases the outcome of this technique for getting things done ends poorly. Despite the unpredictable outcome, jumping the queue is practiced by many in traffic and even more when funneling work to teams. The consequences when working on information technology products are far more predictable than driving, and they are ALWAYS bad. Let’s fix some of the problems leading to queue jumping.

We also have a visit from Susan Parente, who brings her I Am Not A Scrumdamentalist column to the cast.  We discuss risk management when using hybrid agile approaches. 

Contact Susan on LinkedIn linkedin.com/in/susanparente or at Parente@s3-tec.com

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Jumping the queue breaks the pipes!

Work Entry: Jumping the Queue

Over the past few months, I have been in traffic jams on the highway several times when traveling to our weekly hike.  In more than one instance someone has decided to pull over and drive on the berm.  In more than a few cases the outcome of this technique for getting things done ends poorly. Despite the unpredictable outcome, jumping the queue is practiced by many in traffic and even more when funneling work to teams. The consequences in information technology are far more predictable than driving, and they are ALWAYS bad.

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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:

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