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.
If you want to see examples of these mechanisms in action, adopt an organizational objective of eliminating priority assignment errors. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Project Management:
- Resuming Projects: Team Morale
- Sometimes we cancel a project because of budgetary constraints. We reallocate its resources and scatter
its people, and we tell ourselves that the project is on hold. But resuming is often riskier, more difficult
and more expensive than we hoped. Here are some reasons why.
- Communication Traps for Virtual Teams: II
- Communication can be problematic for any team, especially under pressure. But virtual teams face challenges
that are less common in face-to-face teams. Here's Part II of a little catalog with some recommendations.
- Ten Approaches to Managing Project Risks: I
- Risk management usually entails coping with losses if they do occur. Here's Part I of a concise summary
of the options for managing risk.
- Managing Wishful Thinking Risk
- When things go wrong, and we look back at how we got there, we must sometimes admit to wishful thinking.
Here's a framework for managing the risk of wishful thinking.
- Seven Planning Pitfalls: II
- Plans are well known for working out differently from what we intended. Sometimes, the unintended outcome
is due to external factors over which the planning team has little control. Two examples are priming
effects and widely held but inapplicable beliefs.
See also Project Management and Workplace Politics for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 7: Toxic Disrupters: Tactics
- Some people tend to disrupt meetings. Their motives vary, but they use techniques drawn from a limited collection. Examples: they violate norms, demand attention, mess with the agenda, and sow distrust. Response begins with recognizing their tactics. Available here and by RSS on June 7.
- And on June 14: Pseudo-Collaborations
- Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.
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