The room was on the second floor of a three story building near the Greenbelt in Boise. On the outside of the was a small tag with the word Naboo in a sans-serif font. Obviously a Star Wars fan had been involved in the naming convention. Chris sat directly across the table, Scott across and to my right. In front of Chris was a copy of my resume and a set of questions. I couldn’t exactly see if he was following the script but at one point he asked me how I prioritize.
It’s a good question. This wasn’t my answer. But for anyone who ever does need an answer, here’s a good review.
According to Greg MeKeown the word priority was singular for the first 500 years of its existence. Of course those are the same 500 years where English had taken a back seat to French and we ended up with all the wonderful French words for food (beef, poultry, veal, etc.). So we could chide Greg for being disingenuous–it’s hard to innovate in a format that is being oppressed–but instead let’s give his quote credence and believe that the word priority should only mean one first thing. How do we prioritize?
When I was first on the other side of the interview table I was handed a script of questions that included the exact question, “how do you prioritize?” Sometimes I got thoughtful responses, and other times I got people who basically told me they knew how to read a calendar. The “I look at the calendar and see what’s next” is not an effective method as it tends to involve the least amount of thought. The calendar should be an input, but not the single source of decision-making.
When I’ve been asked to teach about prioritization techniques I’ve generally taught that there are seven variations I find useful. This list is not all-inclusive, but does cover different perspectives to accommodate different leadership styles. Prioritization systems also have to be easy to articulate. I’ve found that they need to be communicated to encourage buy-in from stakeholders. It’s not uncommon for someone to hear me say that “we prioritized based upon XXX technique due to [specific factors that justify the technique].”
Here are the seven models (in no particular order) with brief explanations:
- Proximity to mission (requires a mission statement)
- This is used when a published mission statement is agreed upon by the majority of stakeholders and is still valid. A SMART goal that doesn’t work towards a stretch goal isn’t much use.
- Prioritize for momentum (Dave Ramsey’s technique)
- This method involves understanding team dynamics and motivation. It should be used when the team needs a win. Pick something they can be successful at quickly and build on that success going forward. It’s nicknamed the Dave Ramsey Technique because of Ramsey’s advocation for it in debt reduction.
- Pareto Prioritizing based upon value
- The Pareto Principle is often summarized as saying that 80% of the value of a product is in 20% of the features. Eric Ries passionately advocates for applying this principle inside of any organization that is working to innovate as it will focus the investment into the areas that contribute the most value.
- Prioritize based upon expert judgement
- When information is scarce and a judgement has to be made quickly we often find ourselves relying upon what we may summarize as instinct. It turns out, it’s not instinct, but the ability of our brains to leverage what we know in complex situations. Sometimes it’s the only explanation that we can give and it’s the best one depending on the situation.
- Prioritize based upon proximity towards goal
- Prioritize based upon Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
- This technique is team centric and has limited application outside of military settings where leadership is responsible for the total workforce. In situation where the total workforce is the leader’s responsibility using Maslow’s Hierarchy is perfectly appropriate in making decisions.
- Prioritize based upon disruptions (variance) from an ideal flow
- When an ideal flow system is defined and deviations are identified the instances in the system with the largest deviation determine the priority for improvement. This method requires quantifiable information and is generally used with those trained in six sigma techniques.
While this list is not designed to be all inclusive it does present a list of easily articulable techniques that fit in most situations.
A word of caution. If you’re going to apply a technique that’s unpopular always give a reassessment date. “Team, we had to prioritize for this development cycle based upon [proximity to the goal] and we’ll reassess this method in 30 days.” Prioritization is a key part of stakeholder management. Projects will move forward as long as the people are committed, and often times how the tasks are chosen that’s just as important as what tasks are chosen.