In the near-chaos of high-pressure workdays, it's easy to err in assigning task priorities. President Eisenhower is said to have summarized the problem this way: "What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important." Using the Eisenhower Matrix, popularized by Steven Covey as the Importance/Urgency Matrix, we can avoid ranking the Urgent but Less Important issues above the More Important and Nonurgent. In "How to Foresee the Foreseeable: Preferences," Point Lookout for February 22, 2012, I noted another source of priority assignment error, which I called Appeal. This error comes from our tendency to rank as higher in priority those tasks we find appealing.
Individuals can make both of these errors, sometimes simultaneously. But things get more complicated when we consider the priority assignment errors of organizations. Here's the beginning of a catalog of causes of priority assignment errors for organizations.
- Fighting the last war
- Organizations tend to see the world in terms with which they're most familiar. This concept is captured in the idea that armies and nations are best prepared to fight the war they fought most recently, and in the idea that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
- To assign priorities realistically, approach the situation with a fresh perspective. Include people who haven't been involved in past efforts. See "Bois Sec!," Point Lookout for October 27, 2004, for more.
- Lock-in occurs in organizations when they escalate commitments to choices of inferior quality, or to courses of action demonstrably less effective than one or more alternatives, based on a belief that their prior commitments have foreclosed alternatives. In this way, they're led to assign priorities based on past decisions, rather than basing them on the current situation.
- Separate priority assignment decisions from political power. Be ruthless about accepting past errors as errors. See "Indicators of Lock-In: I," Point Lookout for March 23, 2011, for more.
- Power to the powerful
- Because power is rarely distributed evenly in organizations, the more powerful organizational actors can often use their power to modulate organizational decisions. These political actors can even influence how people assign priorities to the issues of the day, to ensure that the organization chooses a course that enhances, or at least does not threaten, the power they now hold.
- Evaluating the Organizations tend to see
the world in terms with
most familiarvalidity of someone's assertions requires evaluating his or her political positions.
- Abusing political skill
- Just as power is unevenly distributed, so is political skill. When political skill is used in furtherance of organizational goals, the organization benefits. But political skill can be used for personal advancement, which might actually conflict with organizational advancement. The politically skilled can sometimes modulate organizational decisions in their own favor by influencing priority assignment decisions.
- Knowing how you (or others) benefit from your (their own) recommendations is essential to maintaining (assessing) objectivity.
Projects never go quite as planned. We expect that, but we don't expect disaster. How can we get better at spotting disaster when there's still time to prevent it? How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble Starts is filled with tips for executives, senior managers, managers of project managers, and sponsors of projects in project-oriented organizations. It helps readers learn the subtle cues that indicate that a project is at risk for wreckage in time to do something about it. It's an ebook, but it's about 15% larger than "Who Moved My Cheese?" Just . Order Now! .
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More articles on Project Management:
- Managing Risk Revision
- Prudent risk management begins by accepting the possibility that unpleasant events might actually happen.
But when organizations try to achieve goals that are a bit out of reach, they're often tempted to stretch
resources by revising or denying risks. Here's a tactic for managing risk revision.
- Projects as Proxy Targets: I
- Some projects have detractors so determined to prevent project success that there's very little they
won't do to create conditions for failure. Here's Part I of a catalog of tactics they use.
- More Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why
- Retrospectives — also known as lessons learned exercises or after-action reviews — sometimes
miss important insights. Here are some additions to our growing catalog of obstacles to learning.
- Planning Disappointments
- When we plan projects, we make estimates of total costs and expected delivery dates. Often these estimates
are so wrong — in the wrong direction — that we might as well be planning disappointments.
Why is this?
- Anticipating Absence: How
- Knowledge workers are professionals who "think for a living." When they suddenly become unavailable
because of the pandemic, we consider substituting someone else. But substitutes need much more than
skills and experience to succeed.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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