|"This is top priority!" What does this really mean? The dictionary definition is "superiority in rank, position, or privilege", and "something that is more important than other things and that needs to be done or dealt with first".
Prioritization consists of two separate but related initiatives. The first is to set the priority, and the second is to manage the priorities once they are set. In our workshops, when participants use a Headscratcher such has "How do I better prioritize?", most of the time they are asking "How do I manage my priorities?".
Setting priorities is a function of many factors, such as impact (economic, goodwill, customer satisfaction, family, etc), necessity of the result, ROI (return on investment), opportunity, resources available, timeliness and more. Priorities are set in many ways; by vote, by steering committee, by manager, by self, with opinions of others, and by customers. Priorities of initiatives involving more than one person are often set by a more senior person or manager.
Once priorities are set, how do you manage and perform to those priorities?
The Golden Rule:
No action on a lower priority can impact the expected deliverable of a higher priority. This doesnít mean you only work on the top priority. It simply means that if you work on something else, be sure it wonít impact your ability to deliver on a higher priority.
Priorities are dynamic not static. We live in the real world, stuff happens, people get sick, competitors exist, sales varies, customers change minds, it rains and snows, we discover things we didnít know, so be prepared for changing priorities. Whatís important here is to understand what conditions have changed that triggered a change in priority. Maybe a competitor just announced something, or manufacturing defect was discovered.
From the Golden Rule "...impact the expected deliverable", impact is heavily dependent upon risk. If you have 6 hours to complete a "Top Priority" deliverable, and from your experience it usually only takes 2 hours to do, then a 30 minute diversion to accommodate another request is reasonable and probably low risk. However if youíre given a new unfamiliar task to perform in 6 hours, while is "should" only take two hours, you donít have the experience so you are uncertain. In this case, taking on another task before getting a handle on the "Top Priority" might be unwise and too risky.
Keeping the above in mind, here are some thoughts about setting and managing priorities.
• Donít have a gazillion things on a priority list. Since priorities change and setting them is a combination of many variables, donít fret over something thatís priority number 12 vs. 13. Consider understanding the top 3 priorities, then have two other buckets; things that have priority but below the top 3, and everything else (low priority and no priority).
• Consider Time - Some initiatives have fairly low priority until a certain date, and then their priority goes up, and perhaps becomes number 1. For example, if a project takes 4 months to accomplish, it may be a low priority 12 months before itís due. However, at 4 months prior to its due date, it becomes a much higher priority. Another example; In the USA, income tax returns are due by April 15 (unless you file an extension). If you do your own tax return, and normally only takes a few hours, then it might be a low priority, until April 14, because if you donít file by April 15th youíll pay a penalty.
• Consider Risk - When something comes along that is a lower priority than what you are working on, follow the golden rule, by assessing if the diversion will or will not impact your ability to delivery on the higher priorities. This assessment is a risk assessment. If youíre really good at estimating and have a clear understanding of the work you have to do to delivery on the priority item, then a short deviation might be low risk. However if youíre working on a priority item, unfamiliar, or unsure of the magnitude of the task, then a deviation might be ill-advised.
The Takeaway: When managing priorities implement the Golden Rule and understand the impact risk that lower priority items have on the higher priority deliverables.