Use Prioritization to End Management by Crisis

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Two years ago, I sold my suburban tract house and moved to a small farm. I care for several rescue horses, keep bees and chickens, and planted fruit trees and shrubs, a vegetable patch, and an herb garden. Farm life has given me perspective on the constant urgency and stress we typically experience in our work lives.

The tasks I do to build and run this little farm typically fall into the following categories.

  • Emergency – My horse is down with colic, and without emergency veterinary care, she’s likely to experience a bowel torsion and die.
  • Urgent – An ice storm knocked the power out, and I have to get the generator running so that I have lights and running water. I’ll experience significant discomfort without power, but nobody is actually going to die.
  • High Priority – The tomatoes are ripe, and there are more than I can eat fresh. I need to pick them and process them or they’re going to rot on the vine and all my hard work putting in the garden will be wasted.
  • Medium Priority – The chicken coop needs to be raked out and cleaned. It’s starting to smell funny. But if I don’t get to it today, tomorrow will do just fine.
  • One-off Task, Not Urgent – A windstorm brought down a hackberry tree in the side yard. It’s not on the house or the fence, but I need to cut it up for firewood and get it out of the yard.
  • Recurring Maintenance Tasks – The fruit trees need pruning, the veggie patch needs weeding, there’s a fence post that’s rotted out, and there are some potholes in the driveway that need a couple shovelfuls of gravel.
  • Low Priority – Fun projects that enhance our enjoyment of the property, like rebuilding the fire pit or planting zinnias. They’re important to my emotional well-being but aren’t necessary to keep the farm functional.

It's Not All a Crisis!

I’ve worked with companies that acted like almost every task or project fell into emergency or urgent categories. High Priority was really their “lowest” setting. It’s exhausting. It burns out employees. And it puts management into a “crack the whip” mode all the time. It causes constant reshuffling of activities and puts everyone in a reactive mode, which makes it hard to really think or act strategically. Some managers even cultivate a crisis mentality in order to position themselves as the hero who saved the day. Every little issue that comes along gets magnified then publicly battled and vanquished.

There's a Better Way

I once worked with a former NASA flight controller who, when presented with a work “emergency”, would ask – is anybody going to die? No, then it’s not an emergency. His refusal to succumb to workplace panic helped me develop a better sense of perspective.

Prioritization needs to be based in reality. Risks and problems need to be understood not just as individual phenomenon, but in comparison to other factors. Let’s take some real-life examples and use the categories above to realistically evaluate them.

Real Examples, Prioritized

  • The telephony system at a large state university has gone down, resulting in phone and data outages across campus. – This is actually an emergency, because without communication services medical, fire, and law enforcement emergencies can’t be reported, putting lives at risk.
  • The inventory management system is down and current inventory levels are not displaying correctly on the website. – This is an urgent problem, not an emergency. Customer satisfaction and sales will be negatively impacted, but there is no health and safety risk.
  • A missed requirement resulted in about 10-15 orders a day having to be manually processed until a fix can be implemented. – This is a one-off, not urgent problem. Sure, it’s an inconvenience, but few people are impacted, and there is likely little to no financial impact.
  • A new blog post includes a dead link. – Recurring maintenance task. Website links, updating content, updating navigation, etc. are a regular part of doing business. Make a honey-do list and just work through the tasks.
  • User acceptance testers for the new release logged 12 new defects yesterday. – Testing cycles and repairing defects is a recurring process. The existence of defects isn’t an urgent issue. Prioritizing them and resolving them or deferring them is part of every release. It’s a high priority activity, but it should be low drama.
  • The team needs to create estimates for the annual project budgeting process. – This probably happens every year. Teams just need to set aside time to support the planning process. Sure, it needs to be done, and there’s probably a deadline, but this is just another medium priority recurring task, not a crisis.
  • The sales team has asked for visibility to customer warranty status in their sales automation application so that they don’t have to call or email the customer support team to get that information. – This is a low-priority, quality of life activity. Yes, it would be nice to have, and it would make it easier for the sales team, but there are other ways to get the information. This is unlikely to have a big impact on sales or productivity.

Prioritization Protects Your Team and Your Goals

Whether you manage a team or an entire department, the way you prioritize work and manage the inevitable ad-hoc requests, changes in direction, and problems has a huge impact on your team. Be thoughtful in how you react and manage these issues. You can amp up the drama, or you can dial it down. When folks are screaming about an issue or a deadline, ask questions. Find out what the real impact is. Compare it to the other work your team is currently handling. Even if it is an emergency or an urgent issue, the way you react can enable a calm and reasoned response.

Being a manger in IT is a bit like being a barrier island. You protect your team from the wind and waves of the storms so that they can be more productive and effective. So when the next “OMG this is a disaster – fix it now!” problem hits, stop and ask yourself, okay, but will the horse die? The likely answer is, probably not.

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