Updated: Aug 6, 2021
“Everything is important!” “We have to do it all!” “We have a lot of priorities!”
“When you chase two rabbits, one will escape” - Native American saying
One of the biggest obstacles to true Agility is a lack of prioritization. And yet, I hear from clients all the time that they need to “do everything”. There appears to be a false dichotomy between “output” and “prioritization.” The two are complementary, not mutually exclusive. Let’s get our shovels and see if we can dig our way out of this.
Prioritization: Prioritization is the relative importance of the work. It can drive the sequence of work.
Output: Output is the amount of work completed. E.g. We completed 50 widgets.
Outcome: The impact of the work completed. E.g. We made $5000 selling widgets.
Clear Prioritization is Kind. Unclear Prioritization is Unkind. Brené Brown is quoted as saying, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” I like to add the word “prioritization” to that quote. When companies fail to define clear prioritization, the burden falls onto the shoulders of the individuals. Individuals are either expected to do everything regardless of capacity or make their own decisions on priority. Either way, the organization’s inability to prioritize places an undue burden and stress on the individual.
Consider another common scenario. An individual has goals in their performance agreement to complete specific objectives. If those objectives are not a high priority for the company, the individual will not have access to resources to get the work done. We see this all the time with “hot projects” getting attention and rewards, while others starve and flounder. If the organization is prioritizing clearly, everyone should be working on something that is resourced and supported. It’s unkind to ask someone to do work and then prevent them from doing it.
Prioritization Starts at the Top. Lack of clear priorities results in hand-to-hand combat on the ground. To all the leaders who implore their teams to “work it out”, please understand, it’s usually not a personality conflict, it’s a true prioritization conflict. Leaders of respective organizations need to get together and get clear on priorities across organizations. When it’s left to the teams on the ground, priorities will be unaligned and outcomes will suffer.
I know from experience that leaders have no idea what we mean when we ask for clear priorities, so let’s be super clear. We need 1...n prioritization of work across departments.
1...n: Be specific about which item is #1, which is #2, and so on. Any sentence that starts with “Our 5 priorities are...”, fails the clarity test. People are left to prioritize between the 5. Incidentally, in my experience, the “top 5” typically cover just about any work we could possibly do, providing zero help in narrowing our focus.
Across departments: Leaders need to get together with their peers and decide what comes first, second, third. Asking people to work cross-functionally when they all have different priorities, is a recipe for conflict. Get clear with your peers now, and you’ll avoid all the little escalations later. A million little decisions happen every day where people decide what to work on next, which meeting to attend, etc. Help make those decisions easy.
Prioritization is Relative. I see organizations build “prioritization criteria” for opportunities. The problem is that most of the opportunities pass the criteria! Of course they do! The problem with “prioritization criteria” is that it evaluates each opportunity in isolation, without comparison against the other opportunities available.
“But our criteria is a scoring model!” A scoring model is better because it is comparative. One word of caution on scoring: the scoring should drive distinction, not try to hedge by covering everything. For example, if you have one criterion for “strategic” and another that says “tactical - urgent” with equal weight, all opportunities will have equal value. When your scoring model tries to account for every possible criterion, you’ll end up with all your opportunities getting the same score, or so close that it’s not really clear that the highest ranking is the optimal choice. Your scoring model was a complete waste at this point because it created no clarity for prioritization and likely even created confusion.
The Prioritization Maturity Curve.
Bad prioritization is better than no prioritization. I’m serious. Focusing on the wrong thing and learning from that mistake, is better than focusing on everything at once. The first stage of maturity is “For gosh sakes, pick something!”
Collective intuition is a great first step. People have ideas in their heads about what the priority is, or should be. Prioritizing based on collective intuition can literally take minutes, and moves an organization leaps and bounds ahead of “no prioritization”. A simple affinity prioritization exercise is performed as follows: Put all the work items (initiatives, projects, etc.) on sticky notes, and have the team silently move them on a virtual board (or wall) where one end is “high priority” and the other end is “low priority”. Continue until you have items in a sequence. There will be a few that bounce back and forth because there’s disagreement. Pull those for discussion and work through them until the team reaches an agreement. There’s no magic bullet for reaching an agreement, you’ll have to hash it out.
Quantitative Prioritization. Your intuitive prioritization is better than nothing, but it may not truly optimize the most valuable use of company resources. Using techniques like WSJF (weighted shortest job first) along with COD (cost of delay) can significantly improve outcomes. The simplest way to get started is simply to use the formula:
PRIORITY SCORE = VALUE / EFFORT
Both VALUE and EFFORT are estimated using the Fibonacci sequence, as commonly seen in Agile Planning Poker. The idea is to make quick estimates using a unitless measure. This can be a whole article so read more on Fibonacci and estimations here.
You’ll quickly realize that you don’t have a great definition of VALUE. You’ll need to agree as an organization on how you want to quantify value. Does it include strategic positioning? Revenue? Cost of Delay? Every organization values different dimensions, find yours.
Why don’t we start with Quantitative Prioritizaiton if it’s so optimal? First, it takes longer. Second, until organizations get prioritization into their DNA, the quantitative model will likely be rejected or overridden. It’s crucial for the team to learn to work through creating distinctions in priority. When teams move straight to Quantitative Prioritization, the risk is that results are accepted without critical questioning. Using the intuitive method first builds the prioritization muscle, then moving to something quantitative is understood and welcomed.
Using Prioritization. So you’ve prioritized, now what? Prioritization should be the input for the decision to start working on something when capacity opens up.
Don’t starve projects: If you are using prioritization to simply “know what’s important” you will end up with work that is starved for resources. Starving projects is inhumane! Why? I encountered this real-life scenario at a client: The company had a priority list, 1...n, but the whole universe was on the list. Mike, the gentleman who was leading #85 came to me for help because he couldn’t get anyone to work on his project. I said, “Of course you can’t get help, you’re #85!” “But…”, Mike said, “It’s my whole performance agreement, my bonus and my job rests on me completing this work!” The company had set Mike up to fail. Shortly after this discussion, Mike was, let go from his job. The company gave him a goal that wasn’t a priority and then prevented him from achieving it! Unclear prioritization is unkind. Clear prioritization without clear decisions is also unkind.
Limiting Work in Progress: The key next step after prioritization is to limit the work in progress (WIP). When you limit the work in progress, it drives focus. Focus the team on the most important thing so you can get it done sooner. Once you determine your WIP limit, the priority will inform what gets started. For more info check out this blog on WIP.
But what happens to all that work we’re not doing? Prioritization is a cultural paradigm shift. Let’s take a look at the impact.
Prioritization is Culturally Hard. Prioritization sounds wonderful, but culturally people are now making decisions they have been skirting for years. Here are some common objections and suggestions to shift the thinking.
“What happens if ‘my stuff’ is not a high enough priority to start working on?” The question itself reveals a disconnect between individual and organizational priorities. Individuals should work on the highest priorities for the organization, through continuous re-allocation of capacity. This can happen through a combination of self-selection and/or assignment.
“Everything is important.” No, it’s not. Really. It’s not. Because if it’s so important you would focus on it and get it done sooner. When everything is equal priority, everything takes longer. This is where we need to make some tough decisions. I find that culturally, companies have multiple #1 priorities because they want to make everyone happy. When in reality this compromise makes no one happy.
“We have to do everything!” No one said you can’t. Prioritization doesn’t mean saying “no”, it means saying “not yet”. When work is focused and properly sequenced, you will likely get even more done. Delay the start, accelerate the finish. The Agile Principle “Maximize work NOT done” embodies this point. The volume of work is not the goal, the goal is outcomes. When work is prioritized, you’ll improve the outcomes, even if the volume of work decreases.
Conclusion. Clear prioritization is kind. Unclear prioritization is unkind. Clear prioritization also produces better outcomes. Prioritization structures are simple, but cultural changes and mindsets can be difficult. Building competency around having tough conversations is key. As with most hard things, overcoming difficulties has big rewards.