Prioritization paralysis

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It’s that kind of week. The kind where it’s Thursday, but it feels like it’s a Friday. But, I still have at least enough work to make me “wish” that it was only Tuesday. Does that make sense? Client work, company responsibilities and even normal life tasks are starting to slip through the cracks. And that bothers me. It really does. I’m a checklist, priority driven type of person who likes to check things off when I complete work. I loathe piles of work that start to build up which is why the first day or two returning from a lengthy vacation is painful for me.

But in a conversation yesterday, a former colleague reminded me of an important reality. The inability to prioritize is often one of the biggest issues that businesses and more specifically, the IT organizations that I work with, struggle to overcome.  And that “reality” is even more complex because it occurs at all levels. Not just staff employees, rather many C- level executives and executive steering committees fail to do even the most basic prioritization.  Which obviously leads to a daunting situation:  What do you do when time is limited, resources are cramped and work is seemingly unlimited??  Then layer on top of it mis-matched expectations of what should be tackled on a daily basis, from top to bottom.

In most instances that I’ve seen, you get what I’ll call prioritization paralysis.  That same off feeling I get in my stomach when I don’t get to the end of my list is what organizations who are bad at setting their priorities, “feel” on a daily and yearly basis.  They don’t know where to start. Or for that matter, what to finish.  Such an experience impacts the workflow of all involved. From the PMO who can’t get a grip on a stable governance process because of business stakeholders constantly changing strategic direction. Or to a tester who wants only to finish testing an emergency fix to a key production software application so that he/she can get back to their main project list of tasks.

Regardless, I’m a huge proponent of trying to prioritize your pile of work, however big. Either based on criticality to others, or importance to my own task, 1, 2, 3a, 3b, etc. Priority can definitely change as quickly as new tasks come up, but I strive to assign a value and then to execute on that plan to finish things on a daily basis. Whereas I don’t always finish my list, or I only finish a smaller part of a bigger deliverable, I’m trying to push things to a final state and hold myself accountable for driving things to completion. My self imposed rigor allows me to be flexible and respond to unexpected requests. I don’t panic when someone adds a task to my list, rather I reset both my own and other’s expectations of the remaining items on my checklist. Part of that process is obviously the ability to communicate a change in priority effectively, but it is by no means, a special skill that only I possess. You would be surprised how open people can be to reseting expectations if you just ask.  In my opinion, that’s where many organizations fail. They don’t push their employees or groups to set their own priorities.  Then they fail to continue to reset and communicate changes.  There’s no perfect way to prioritize, but just starting down the path is important and it adds critical accountability to any organization.

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