How can we be expected to handle priorities if Wikipedia doesn't even define what a «priority» is?
Priorities come in so many flavors: top priorities; priorities A, B or C; urgent or important priorities. Yet they seem to be so elusive that the Wiktionary, too, just tells us: «priority (plural priorities) - 1. An item's relative importance. ...».
Obviously, they are meant to help us. In David Allen's Getting Things Done (GTD) method, they're one criterion out of four that we use to determine what to tackle next from our list of next actions. David summarized the issue once on his (now defunct) blog:
What on the list, if completed, would positively affect the most things of importance in my world?
In other words...leverage. There are certain projects, certain actions, that if done would be like linchpin events - they'll cause a lot of other dominoes to fall.
Mind this distinction: the topic here is importance, not order of execution. Priorities have a purpose: we want to be effective (complete the right actions), so we need to know what is worth doing, what would make many other dominoes fall. Whether we actually start the most important actions first, is not inherent in the priority we give our actions.
Let's try find ways to determine «priority» and how to use them.
How to assess «importance»?
If priority is the relative importance of items with respect to others, we need to figure out which kinds of «importance» allow for good, generic ratings. After all, we want to compare actions, based on the results. We can hardly hope for a measurement here, so let's rather talk about assessment, which gives us more freedom.
Coding the priority of an action means to assign our assessment of its importance to it. We can do this by tagging, writing priority numbers beside the tasks, whatever. By comparing priority codes later, we can determine what is more important than other things, without having to go through the whole process again. Yes, that's right: priorities do not really change that often, that's a misconception (for more broken concepts of priority, see below). You can - no: in fact, you should review your assessments and even how you assess actions on a regular base, but way less often than you change e.g. your agendas.
Some options that come to my mind:
- Assess the generic importance of actions.
The easiest way to prioritize is to abstain from defining importance and to just assess whether an action is important or not.
One of the most popular prioritization schemes does exactly this. It is commonly attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower. Depending on whether an action is important (or not) and urgent (or not), it falls into one of four categories, or quadrants (I to IV, see Lodewijk's wonderful sketchcast introducing the Eisenhower Matrix). Next actions can be prioritized according to their quadrant, then:
Quadrant II actions (important, but not urgent) have the highest priority, because you're working proactively on important stuff, thus preventing crises in the future.
Quadrant I represents important and urgent actions, which are slightly less important than actions from II because the crisis (urgency) is already there, you're trying to overcome it and may neglect quadrant II actions, which in turn fosters future crises because you lack time to work proactively - a vicious circle.
Quadrant III (not important, but urgent) actions are nothing we really want to tackle, because they're only demanding, yet not important to us.
Quadrant IV (neither important nor urgent) is the worst category of all, because we're wasting time here on unimportant stuff that not even anybody is waiting for.
- Assess the contributions of actions to business growth.
In his Printable CEO series (really excellent PDFs there, by the way!), especially in the Concrete Goals Tracker part, David Seah is rating actions according to how much they contribute to the growth of his business. An action deserves a straight 10 on his scale if «It's life-sustaining billable work!». Other actions rank lower, down to 1 if «It's making a new relationship!».
Obviously, you can assess the contribution to business growth by your own standards, but restricting the possible ratings to 10, 5, 2 or 1 points makes assessment easier. It also allows for tracking your working patterns, so you can tell whether were you 're actually able to follow your priorities.
- Assess the exploitation of market share and market growth by actions.
This prioritization scheme originated from within the Boston Consulting Group (see a great introduction into it at Mindtools). Usually, it is applied to products and services, but you can apply it to prioritization of next actions, too, provided that you gain something from your actions. Taking out the garbage, e.g. or other chores are not good candidates for this scheme, because you're rating your actions depending on the opportunities they exploit, in terms of market share and market growth (both can be either high or low). Next actions can be prioritized according to the opportunities they exploit, then.
Stars are actions that help you to preserve and increase an already high market share in growing markets. This is the type of actions that becomes possible after your hunch proved right. As a result, you have less competitors to worry about, you're able to grow and even to shape the future of your business. Obviously the best option to pursue. Let me mention the above caveat again: when we're talking about taking out the garbage, it's neither desirable to increase your market share (by taking over this chore from other family members) nor to participate in a growing market (e.g., by offering this service to people in your neighborhood who can't or don't want to do it) - unless you get something back.
Cash Cows are actions that just exploit your (existing) high market share in markets that don't grow. Cash Cow actions are slightly worse than Star actions because they simply exploit a positive status quo: you're milking the cow. No growth is fostered and your high market share may inspire a false sense of security until it's too late to create something new (by Stars actions, e.g.). A typical Cash Cow action for an SAP consultant would be to accept yet another project offer: since training is very expensive and lopsided, SAP consultants are rare - which means the market share of a single one is relatively high. The overall market, however, is not growing considerably (though revenues are).
Question Marks are actions that increase your low market share in growing markets. It's the type of actions that follow an emerging trend, like starting to sell masses of a new, funny gadget on ebay after you've seen some others succeed with it. That's more innovative than Dogs actions (see below), but also much more risky than Cash Cow actions.
Dogs are actions that will neither increase your low market share nor do they address a growing market. It's just work you won't get noticed for. A typical Dogs action example would be to accept any boring 9-5 job, as long as it pays the rent for your flat.
- Assess the need for an action.
While this approach is often used to prioritize buying or acquisition decisions, it can also be applied to actions. A fairly simple variant is a well-known, three-fold distinction:
Essential - actions that must be taken, otherwise an important goal may be missed or substantial damage or harm may occur.
Optional - actions that may be taken to achieve further goals that aren't currently targeted (but will normally be, in a later round).
Nice to have - actions that do not contribute to achieving a goal, but lead to higher satisfaction. Luxury, that is.
This approach can be further refined to cover all levels of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. It becomes increasingly difficult, though, to attach a single priority code to an action.
- Assess the chances of survival, given a specific action.
I hope you'll never be in a situation where your decisions affect life and death, literally. However, extreme circumstances sometimes force people to make decisions without having the option to avoid all kinds of guilt.
The classical concept of a triage is such a case. For instance, the Simple Triage And Rapid Treatment (START) scheme defines the following priority assessments for the evacuation of people to hospitals:
Deceased are left where they fell, covered if necessary; note that in S.T.A.R.T. a person is not triaged "deceased" unless they are not breathing and an effort to reposition their airway has been unsuccessful.
Immediate or Priority 1 (red) evacuation by MEDEVAC if available or ambulance as they need advanced medical care at once or within 1 hour. These people are in critical condition and would die without immediate assistance.
Delayed or Priority 2 (yellow) can have their medical evacuation delayed until all immediate persons have been transported. These people are in stable condition but require medical assistance.
Minor or Priority 3 (green) are not evacuated until all immediate and delayed persons have been evacuated. These will not need advanced medical care for at least several hours. Continue to re-triage in case their condition worsens. These people are able to walk, and may only require bandages and antiseptic.
Priority conflicts and how to solve them
A priority conflict is when your actual order of execution of next actions can't be made to match your priority-based ordering.
The solution is, in fact, easy. Especially for people following the Getting Tings Done (GTD) method. Remember there are four factors that determine your selection of the next action:
The context you're currently in. I've already blogged about what is (not) a context.
- Time available
- Energy available
That's four, not just one (priority). This is not meant to multiply your pains, it is just a reminder that priorities alone are not sufficient to make a decision. «Priorities don't care who they compete with.», but you do. When priorities are in conflict, it doesn't mean that your prioritization was buggy. It just means that you aren't in the appropriate context, or haven't got enough time or energy to make the order of execution of your next actions match the priority-based order. And this will happen all the time. Priorities are assessments of relative importance, not of feasibility. Keeping this in mind, your job is to align your order of execution with your priorities; to make corrections; and to monitor your performance, with respect to first things first.
When you feel you're trapped in a Catch-22 situation, check whether this point of view holds true and just accept the facts, if so. On the other hand, maybe you'll find out it's all but a game and that you do not want to play it any longer. Say so. Your desire may be to be everybody's darling or not to become guilty under any circumstances, but sometimes this just doesn't work out. Make a decision instead of staying passive.
Broken concepts of priority
- Priority is not an assessment of urgency.
Priorities are an assessment of importance, which is not the same as urgency. You can combine importance and urgency aspects when assessing priorities (the Eisenhower Matrix does exactly this). But once you start to consider urgency a stand-alone criterion, your priority assessments will resemble an ant hill - constantly in motion and impossible to control.
- Priorities are not agendas.
Priorities help you with choosing what to do today. But they do not immediately translate into an agenda. When you mention «my priorities for today», did you actually mean that you re-assess the importance of all actions, every day? Kudos if you do, but probably you don't. As a matter of fact, you're just choosing a different set of actions you want to complete today. All priorities assigned to other actions stay unaffected, most likely.
- Priority is not a motivational device.
Priority coding isn't meant to be used as a motivational device. As Merlin Mann puts it:
Consider how often you use the "HIGH PRIORITY!!!" flag not as a practical planning tool, but as a way to try and motivate yourself. Is it really the priority that's set to "HIGH" - or is it just your anxiety and guilt about being behind right now?
- A lobby is not a priority.
You're trying to organize your priorities with respect to myriads of issues and actions. Don't give in to lobbyists - they're leveling the meaning of each and everything, claiming «importance» of a specific thing only because it exists. You may share the same way of assessing priorities, sure. But you needn't.
For NASA, space is still a high priority.
(Dan Quayle, 1990-09-05)
- Projects aren't priorities.
«The Superslim Whackydonk project is our first priority!» No, it isn't. It may be a very important project. A project that rates very high on your scale of priority. But no project ever is a priority. Similar to the urgency misconception, declaring projects as priorities simply means that somebody can't manage his or her resources properly. It's the kind of people who never rate anything as a «nice to have».
What do you think?
What are your ways to assess priorities? Please let me know in the comments below!