Two reasons why people struggle with prioritisation
We prioritise to find ways to achieve as much as possible with our scarce resources. Scarce resources can be anything. Most often they are money and time, but they can be access to tools, office space, bandwidth or anything else in limited supply.
We all want to get the most from our scarce resources. Prioritisation helps to make sure that whatever you do, whether as an individual or organisation, is aligned with and results in what is important for you.
Underlying the common difficulty people and organisations have in prioritising are two simple reasons: they do not understand what is important and because of this cannot let go of the unimportant.
I dealt with the latter reason in my last post. I talked about the need to say “no” often. I introduced the counter-intuitive idea that you will get more done by saying “no” more often. In this post, I am going dig a little deeper and look at the former reason: understanding what is important in the first place.
Let’s clarify what I mean by “what is important”. You may think that prioritisation determines what is important. You can prioritise between goals, but it’s not something we do often. Usually when we prioritise, we are not prioritising the things we want to achieve. We are usually prioritising the different things that we might do.
One way that can help to understand this is to think in terms of a very simple model with 3 components: inputs, work and outputs.
Inputs are easy to understand. Inputs are the things that are scarce and which constrain how much we can do. We may have limited time, limited money – or in an organisation only so many people in our team. Whatever the limit, we want to use these scarce resources as best we can.
What you probably spend most time prioritising are lists of tasks, projects, actions and so on. This can be as complex as a major corporation’s long-term portfolio of projects and investments or as simple as your daily to-do list. Whether it’s a big portfolio or a short to-do list, for a moment I want you to think of the items in that portfolio or to-do list as work. You work using your inputs.
Why do you want to any selection of work? Because the work results in some desirable outputs. This is reflected in the everyday thinking by doing this …. I will achieve that. For instance:
- If I do some exercise …. I will get fitter.
- If I take more holiday …. I will be happier.
- If we develop a new product …. we will make more profit.
- If we invest in newer machines …. we will increase productivity.
And so on.
By “what is important” think of the outputs you want to achieve. Those outputs could be anything such as profit, customer satisfaction, happiness, innovative intellectual property. You want to use your scarce resources to do the best set of work, with your available inputs, to achieve the optimal outputs.
Simple! It’s obvious therefore that to choose the best set of work, you need to have an idea of what outputs you want to achieve.
Don’t know what’s important?
Imagine a friend has a choice of 10 things she can do. She only has time to do 3. She is struggling to make a choice and she has asked you to help her choose which 3 to do. You want to help her. You could just tell her the three you like the sound of most, but you are a better friend than that. You really want to help. You want to advise her of which 3 are the best, for her.
Can you help her?
Well it’s going to be tricky unless you have a good idea of what matters to this friend. In other words, what’s important to her? If you don’t know this you really have no basis on which to select the best three. Instead of optimising, the chances are you will spend time debating and coming up with a random selection.
Obvious I hear you cry. You are right. But obvious as it is, people try to prioritise all the time without being clear about what’s important to them. It’s another entry on that long list of profoundly obvious things that we don’t seem to do in practice.
What happens in practice?
In organisations I see the situation time and time again in which a lot of analysis is spent understanding the inputs. Questions are asked. Exactly how much money do we have? How many team members are available from when until when? How much time is there until we must finish this?
Even more effort is exerted listing down and assessing all the work that is being done and that could be done. Which projects could we do? What projects are underway? How much resource is each project using up? What’s the rate of resource usage? What dependencies are there between projects?
This is great, and is helpful information. However, for it to be useful to prioritise, we also need to know what important things we want to achieve. Quite often, this has not been worked out and agreed. We debate and argue over work without considering why we are doing it.
Chicken or egg?
Unless you know what’s important, prioritising between the choices inherent in any form of to-do list, from the simplest personal daily choices to the most complex investment portfolio, is going to be a flawed process.
That’s not to say prioritisation has absolutely no value if you have not clarified what is important. The act of prioritising will force you to think about what is important. It will make evident how clear, or not, your thinking is. Sometimes you may iterate between defining importance and prioritising options a few times. Try it out yourself sometime. You may well find it a slow and frustrating process.
It is a bit of a simplification, but essentially true that: the clearer you are about what is important, the easier and more productive prioritising will be. Put another way, if you don’t know what’s important, prioritisation will at best be random and at worst a complete waste of time.
Richard Newton is a consultant, award winning author and speaker who helps clients improve their project and change capabilities. He is the author of 16 books including the award winning The Management Book and The Management Consultant, Mastering the Art of Consultancy. Sadly for him, he has an interest in prioritisation!