Priority #1 kills priorities

In my journey looking for the best way to manage my to-do list, I recently tried to create a Trello board where to put all the new tasks added to my personal backlog. My choice of using Trello was based on several needs:

  • Being able to follow up all the in progress tasks
  • Being able to order tasks by priorities

Since Trello is very flexible, I thought that I could create one card by item and three columns: to-do, work in progress, and done. But then, I started to have lots of cards in my to-do column and thought I needed to re-order all the cards to be able to quickly see which have a high priority and which can wait.

I first tried to create an intermediate to-do column called “today” where to put the item I needed to be done by the end of the day. I quickly found out I still had to deal with all the other cards in the “to-do” column which needed review each morning. Thus, I moved once again and created three to-do column :

  • Backlog
  • Priority #3
  • Priority #2
  • Priority #1

For a while, this system seems perfect. Each time I had completed a task, I was able to see which one will be the next to focus on by looking at the priority #1 column. I had a clear view of what I really needed to do at any time. Every week or so, I reviewed my to-do lists in order to move cards from lower priority to higher. Or, at the contrary, I lowered the priority of some tasks considering they were supposed to be priority #1 but I hadn’t time to work on it and the world didn’t stop.

My personal backlog

But…wait! What does it even mean Priority #1? Is it the column where I put items that need to be done quickly? What does mean quick? 1 day? 2 days? 1 week? Is it the column where I put important things? Knowing that important is almost never urgent?

I started to stack items in the Priority #1 column. Urgent tasks, important tasks, items I needed to be done by the end of the week as well as items I needed to be done by the end of the day. Things had different time-to-live in this column. Some was engaged and done within an hour after creating the card. Some may have stayed there for weeks, waiting for me to actually take time to do the task or decide to lower the priority.

After a few weeks, the Priority #1 column became the default column where to put items. Each time someone asked me to do something, I had the reflex to create a new card in it.

This to-do list started to grow faster than I could do the task in it. But, since the Priority #1 column became the default to-do list without any consideration of real priority it wasn’t necessarily a problem. Of course, by acting so, items in the Priority #2 and #3 was no longer a thing. I had so many stuff with the Priority #1 sticker that it became unrealistic to believe I could have time one day to do those tasks. Items was there, I was looking at them on a daily basis. There were things I knew was important. But there was so much things in my #1 column that I was running after the day this column will be empty.

When priority #1 means nothing

My personal experience of dealing with priorities has a lot of things in common with product management.

Building a product is hard and product managers have to deal with a lot of external constraints in addition to their own building strategy: technical needs, complaints from customers, needs for improvements, legal constraints, etc.

Product managers tend to think that one of their roles is to establish priorities and it is very common to see a backlog of items classified by priorities. But creating priorities tends to create threshold effects. When a new item is added to the backlog as an urgent/important thing to do, we only have two choices: either flag it as a priority #0 or moving all priority #1 to lower priorities.

The first option doesn’t solve the issue because P0 is nothing more than the new P1 and soon there will be lots Priority #0 tasks. The second one creates a Peter and the Wolf effect: the more we decrease P1 items to a lower priority level, the more teams underestimate the importance or the urgency of Priority #1.

Priorities #1 means drop everything and pay attention to this. But what appends in the head of your team when everything is a P1?

priority #1

ASAP and What ever it takes

In addition to the threshold effects generated by a priority management system, Priority #1 tends to introduce a lot of words from the semantic field of war, like what ever it takes and right now.

Priority #1 is what you need to fight for!
Priority #1 is the hill you have to take!
Priority #1 is the challenge you have to beat!
Priority #1 is a life or death issue!
Priority #1 needs to be done, whatever it takes!

But product management is not war. And most of the time, saying yes to priority #1 doesn’t mean you are ready to say “no” to all other priorities. It’s not a matter of all or nothing.

As wrote Jason Fried in its book It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work :

You almost surely haven’t budgeted time, energy, or dollars for whatever it takes. That’s code for “at all costs.” When you stop discussing costs, you know they’re going to spiral.

You probably aren’t ready to say no to all the things you’ll have to skip out on because you said yes to whatever it takes.

Priority #1 is not the priority in the long run

Wars don’t last. Priority #1 neither.

When priorities tend to change all the time either because they are decreased or because there are always higher priorities, people stop fighting for P1.

Continuously setting priorities higher and lower time destroys credibility and leadership. It blur the big picture and make people think you don’t know where you’re going and moreover, why you are going there.

Trying to make people involved in priority #1 may get things done a few days sooner, but what does it cost in morale?

Words of priorities are words of urgency. Few things burn morale like urgency. Urgency is acidic and boring in the long run.

By the time, the message you deliver becomes less and less clear in the head of people working with you. If priorities can be set higher or lower all the time, why not allowing anyone to set up any new priority?

At this point, people don’t believe in priorities anymore and they start setting their own. They put their energy in what they believe is the priority because they are able to understand the why of priorities.

In a way, we can make an analogy with the famous quote from Jim Barksdale:

If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.

Ordering is better than prioritizing

Priorities bring confusion and means saying yes to everything.

Even when an item is a priority #4, it’s still a priority. It means you’ve already said yes. It means you will have to deal with it anyway. Either to announce everyone this task is not a priority anymore, which blur the reason why it was one at the beginning. Or to make it a higher priority and by acting so, continuously feeding the feeling of urgency.

The problem is : Priority #1 is inflationary. It devalues anything that is not Priority #1. Before you know it, the only way to get anything done is by putting a Priority #1 sticker on it.

Ordering, at the contrary, brings hard choices and means saying no. Ordering forces you to define a criterion of order. Ordering means that even if there are good reasons to think two tasks are equally urgent or important, you will have to find a way to decide which one go first.

Instead of creating buckets of priorities where each bucket, and especially the first one, may contain several items, order your items!

backlog

In the head of people working with you, ordering means one step after another. It means not doing everything at the same time. Ordering also means focusing on one thing, the top one of the list. It brings team collaboration on the same task instead of each one dealing with different Priority #1.

Ordering forces you to think about the why. Why this item before this one? It forces you to explain why a particular task needs to be done before another one. By doing so, it helps people around you to understand what factors impact the order. It gives your team mates the keys and help them to become more autonomous when hard choices will need to be done in the future.

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