This is my mega post on prioritisation.
You may have heard the phrases like ‘having too many priorities is the same as having no priorities’ and ‘if everything is important, nothing is important’.
Focus is certainly at its most intense when you have few priorities. This may be possible in rare times of crisis, but it is hard during normal business in most large organisations.
It is difficult for ambitious, energetic organisations and individuals to limit their priorities. There are so many pressing problems and wonderful opportunities.
There is also the fear of committing to one thing, of putting all your eggs in one basket. What if it is wrong and you have just wasted all that focus? It is tempting to keep plenty of initiatives and projects on the go to preserve your options – let a thousand flowers bloom and see what flourishes. If I’m honest, it is this fear of missing out that most often drives my own distraction and diffusion.
The main problem with honest prioritisation is that you have to say no. You will lack things. You will miss some opportunities and some of them will certainly turn out to have been big. Like strategy, prioritisation (which is its tactical cousin) is the art of sacrifice. Learn to let go off the road not taken and console yourself with the thought that it is no better to have failed at two things than to have missed out on one of them.
Here are some tactics for reducing your priorities to a manageable number and sharpening your focus, in the face of limitless opportunities, innumerable threats and rampant uncertainty.
Shorten the cycle
One option is to have one priority at a time. To focus intently on one thing for a while and move on quickly to the next. This is most plausible when you have short cycle times, so that new demands don’t creep in before you can finish the first priority.
This is what I understand to be one of the virtues of agile management. I admire, for example, Basecamp’s six week business cycle. I also like the fact that, in between each cycle, they have a few free weeks without a shared focus in order to regroup and get general stuff done.
If that sort of rhythm is not possible, how about this method of prioritising? Try to devote half of your available resources to your top priority. Devote half of what remains to your second priority (i.e 25% of the total), 12.5% to the third and then leave the rest for the inevitable friction and administration that occurs.
Raise the bar
Almost everything that you might seriously consider has the possibility of doing some good. It is rare that something is completely pointless or outright harmful as these things are usually ruled out before they get to the point of serious discussion.
It is rare therefore that you have the luxury of choosing between good and bad. It is more common to choose between good and better or, sadly, bad and worse.
Therefore, the fact that something confers a minor benefit is no reason for a busy organisation to adopt it. It will carry a cost. Too often we neglect to count the cost of our decisions in our enthusiasm to act. Too often we ignore the costs that are borne by others. (See the post on minimum effective dosage.)
You need to set yourself an intimidatingly high bar for things you allow in to disturb the flow and focus of your organisation.
One technique I heard from former head teacher Stephen Tierney, is to give things a mark out of ten for impact and only do projects which score eight or more.
Another approach is to pose yourself the challenge: ‘if this was the only new thing we did this year, would we still do it?’
Minimum viable product
This is a natural companion to the short cycle tactic. It reduces the risk of choosing a single priority by getting out into the arena of the market place or delivery as soon as possible. In this way, you learn rapidly whether you have been wasting your time and can ditch the project with minimal regrets or expense. If it turns out to be useful, you can enhance and extend based on the learning. This makes it easier to go ‘all in’ on a singular focus.
Adopting a philosophy of the minimum viable product is not for every situation (don’t build minimum viable aircraft, please) but it can be valuable where the risk is manageable. It is an approach that accepts that our predictions of human behaviour and response are normally inaccurate. You cannot be certain whether people will value your product and service – or how much they would be willing to pay for it – until you ask them to do so. What people say they might do bears little relation to what they actually do. You can conduct surveys and focus groups; you can ask your friends if they think it is a good idea; you can ask your existing customers how much they would be willing to pay for a new feature… None of that means much until you ask real people to part with real money for a real product in a real setting. Get to that situation as soon as possible to spare yourself wasted time and to get used to having one priority.
See Eric Reis and The Lean Startup for much more on this way of thinking.
Batching and ranking
It is difficult to make absolute judgements but easier to make relative ones. We tend to find it harder to judge that a particular thing is good than to judge that one thing is better than another. See Daisy Christodoulou’s work on assessment for another angle on this, which also inspired this part of the discussion.
This logic applies to prioritisation. If you are faced with evaluating a single project, the temptation is to find it worth doing. If you have to choose between upgrading your finance system and adding a new module to your payroll package, for example, it becomes much easier to see where you should spend your time, or at least to have a meaningful debate. Of course, this only works if you allow yourself to do one of them, not both!
Some projects and decisions have concrete business cases which quantify their costs and benefits. But this is not true of all. And some of those which are quantified are merely works of fiction ‘inspired by real events’ – this is especially true of the business cases for brand new ventures; precision is not an indicator of accuracy.
A good tactic for prioritisation therefore is to batch and rank your options. Save up decisions so that you can consider them in a group, rank order them according to whatever criteria is relevant and apply a strict predetermined cut off – ‘we will only do the highest ranked project’ or ‘we will only do the top three’.
The challenges to this approach include the difficulty of waiting until enough projects or decisions have built up. You need to choose the right rhythm so you have a large enough group but haven’t waited so long the decisions are redundant. If you absolutely cannot wait you can always compare a single project against an existing project in the same domain – ‘is this project better than what we are currently doing?’ This could also be adapted into the even more stringent one in one out rule – ‘what are you prepared to stop doing so we can start doing this?’
Failing that, you will have to fall back on evaluating your project against pre-agreed criteria (you will need some criteria to do the ranking) but we’re really bad at making those sort of judgements in isolation.
Another problem is that projects or decisions do not consume equal amounts of resources or the same groups of resources. Updating your home page may take the same amount of time as cleaning the database and developing a new form, while developing a new brochure will occupy the attention of the marketing team and revising your expenses policy will occupy the finance department. The simplest approach here is to consider batches of similar projects together. Failing that, your gut instinct will take you a long way (although that can open the door to sneaking extra work in). If you’re feeling extra rigorous, you can always quantify the costs – obviously that is easier with the financial ones, but it is possible with time and other resources.
Any project, working group, routine or committee you create will acquire its own momentum, identity and self interest. These endure long after their original purpose has ended. Try to design things with finite lifespans, that automatically terminate unless a conscious effort is made to renew them.
Looking after organisational structure is closer to gardening than building a house – it develops a life of its own and requires permanent cultivation and regular pruning.
Remember that, when you are intensely focused, you also need to switch off regularly. See the importance of perspective in Small but Very Close. The ideal cycle may be short bursts of focus, free from distraction, followed by something completely different.
See also Undelegation.
See also Paul Graham’s classic post on Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule.