The HeadScratcher Post Archive
June 2008
Thinking about Priorities
   
            June 2008  The Headscratcher Post © Headscratchers LLC   Edition 38
 
Thinking about Priorities.  Priority is an interesting subject.  Priorities help us sort out multiple initiatives and assist us in understanding who should work on what and when.    But are you using the priorities list as a lever or a gate?

Let’s take a look
.  When there are multiple initiatives and insufficient yet finite resources (e.g. money, time, people), and everything is labeled “ASAP”, someone declares, “We have to prioritize”.   The assumption is that higher priority initiatives should consume resources before lower priority initiatives.

The Priority List is often created by listing projects and labeling them High, Medium and Low priority.  Usually too many things fall into the “High Priority” list so a prioritization of these are created and the result is often a “Numbered Priority List”. 

What does it mean to have a higher priority?  One definition is that the deliverables of a higher priority initiative should not be impacted by those of a lower priority initiative.  In most cases, even though a project might be the top priority, a.k.a. #1, every resource in the company isn’t assigned to it.  Someone of decision making authority sets a cap on the $’s and time frame for that initiative.  Now the rest of the resources are assigned to the next priority and capped, until all the resources are exhausted.  Any initiatives that remain with no resources available make up the “Future Project list”.

What happens when the top priority gets into trouble, e.g. a key person resigns, the project falls behind schedule, etc.? When that happens a conversation occurs questioning if the top priority project is still the top priority (can you say reprioritize).  If it is still the top priority, negotiation occurs about moving resources from lower priority projects to this top priority project.  This then changes the plan for the lower priority projects and some of these projects potentially fall into the “Future Project list”.

When the top priority project is completed the expectation is that those resources can now go to lower priority projects, or maybe even to those projects on the “Future Project list”.  However by the time the #1 top priority project is complete the priorities have changed, so some of the projects in waiting are still going to wait.

There are multiple lists.  There are corporate priorities, division, department, and then “internal” and “external” priorities, with conflicting resources and caps.  Conversations occur to compare corporate priority #4 with department priority #1, with internal vs. external ROI’s, etc.   To resolve this, linkages and interdependencies between departmental, divisional and corporate priorities are created.  This ensures that if a top priority requires other components or supporting initiatives from other departments, then those too have enough priority to be funded.   So someone plugs all of this into a software program or massive spreadsheet and Shazam!, out comes the Prioritized, Interdepartmental Resource Allocation List (“PIRAL”) of what projects are getting what resources from who and when.  Now everyone thinks they’re done!

Priorities in a dynamic world.  Priorities are not static, but very dynamic.  The marketplace changes, customers evolve, opportunities arise, competition continues, financial crises occurs.  So what may be a low priority can suddenly be critical, and visa versa.   How do you manage a dynamic priority list?   Is there a formula for this?   What if the Priorities were looked at as a guide but not a map?  Maybe less time should be spent trying to get the priorities list exact and little more time on figuring out how to manage it dynamically.

A Lever vs. a Gate.  Suppose that something new arises, a small thing, perhaps only a couple hours of work.  Inevitably, someone will remind the team “That’s not on the priority list”.  More time is wasted by those debating a small item then it would have taken to do it.  The Priority list becomes a gate to prevent new work from creeping in, as opposed to a tool to help manage existing resources in a world that changes every day. 
 
The Takeaway:   Setting priorities around initiatives is a good way to align around where people should be spending their time and resources.  However spending too much time and detail on this list might be counter productive as it may become so rigid it’s an impediment to change as opposed to a tool to facilitate change.  Think about the level of detail and flexibility your priority list should have and what it all means.  Think about this list as a tool to manage change, as opposed to a rigid map and gate that attempts to put everything in place.  Think about how you can dynamically manage the list.

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