Managing the lifecycle of work: Stage 2 — Prioritization

September 18, 2013 Workfront

Has the term "conflicting priorities" become a way of life in your organization? Unfortunately, prioritization is a problem in many companies, with employees often forced to work in an environment in which every task is considered Priority #1.

But, we all know that this is hardly realistic, and the pressure of working under these conditions can take a serious toll. We already know that work-related stress alone costs U.S companies up to $300 billion a year, not to mention the loss of millions more in uncompleted projects.

Why is Prioritizing so Hard?

Here are just a few examples of priority predicaments.

The Pants on Fire Approach: Even with your team's mastery of multi-tasking, everything simply cannot be done simultaneously. When deadlines loom large, the team goes into scramble-mode, frantically trying to churn out the work, often making mistakes, skipping steps and turning out questionable quality because meeting the deadline became a higher priority than achieving the business objective.

The Squeaky Wheel Method: In every organization there are those who squeak louder and more frequently than others. When that happens, business objectives are drowned out by the incessant chirping, screeching, and whining, and The Wheel's projects become top priority just to make the aggravation stop.

The Boss is a Bully, or the Ego Influence: Your team has worked diligently to come up with a realistic prioritization plan that aligns with business objectives. That is, until a senior executive drops a pet project on your plate, expecting it to take precedence over everything. But, how can you possibly get it all done with all the other priorities you've just spelled out? Better order in some pizza for the team—it's going to be a late night.

Playing Favorites or The Tasty Bacon: We all have certain tasks we enjoy more than others—and some that we absolutely loathe. It's like comparing bacon to broccoli. Bacon is juicy, delicious and you'd like to eat it every day, but other stuff you'd prefer to never eat. Bacon for every meal is not healthy. Broccoli is quite nutritious. It's the same with work. It's human nature to want to do what we enjoy first and leave the boring, but important, for last. Prioritizing based on what you like, instead of what is good for the organization, means that the "nutritious" tasks never get done.

Just a Minute, Please

And, then there are the interruptions: the phone calls, the emails, the drive-by visitors—the other stuff that steals your focus away from getting stuff done. The average person is interrupted once every 8 minutes, for about 7 interruptions per hour, totaling 50-60 interruptions per day. The average interruption takes 5 minutes, which adds up to consume about 50% of the average workday.

While it might seem like an unavoidable fact of life, all of this wasted time has a real economic impact. If your employees are wasting half their day on interruptions, that's half their annual salary plus benefits essentially being poured down the drain. In fact, one study of government workers found that the half-day they spent filing, deleting and sorting information added up to a total cost of almost $31 billion per year.

How much is that nonsense costing your company? And, how can you stop the bleeding? Proper prioritization of work is the key.

Adopt a Strategic Prioritization Plan

To get a handle on the priority problem, adopt a strategic prioritization plan. Focusing on the work that's most critical for the organization—and equipping your team with the knowledge and tools to understand exactly what those tasks are—can put your priority plans back on track. Here's how:

Step 1: Define and Communicate Objectives. Make sure everyone understands how and why those objectives are important to the organization and secure "buy in" from everyone at all levels on those goals. Clarify how achieving these objectives will not only benefit the organization, but each team member as well. You may even consider offering incentives for achievement.

Step 2: Prioritize Tasks Based on Strategic Impact. This can be elevating a website project based on customer feedback/needs, for example, or escalating print material production in preparation for a major trade show. Make sure everyone understands that this is the basis for prioritization, and that no "disruptions" of the Squeaky Wheel, Bully Boss or Ego Influence variety will be tolerated.

Step 3: Provide Priority Information. Ensure that team members have everything they need to prioritize properly. Whether it be availability of materials or resources to get the most urgent work done first, or justification for why that job takes top priority, providing this vital information reinforces the fact that these priorities are not merely arbitrary—that they have real, strategic value.

Step 4: Empower the Team. Provide team members with the authority and "air cover" to say no to requests that threaten to upset the strategic priority. Of course, they'll need to provide some explanation, or offer the requestor some options. Get management's support on this approach to thwart back-door attempts to circumvent the system and exert "me first" pressure.

Step 5: Build in Tasty Bacon Time. Empowering employees with the freedom to work on pet projects, favorite tasks or be creative is vital to the health of any organizations. Team members must feel that their input, creativity and talents are valued and acknowledged. Motivate team members to power through less desirable tasks by rewarding them with time to savor the Tasty Bacon.

The Payoff

Strategic work prioritization can mean the difference between working late nights and weekends and actually achieving deadlines in a reasonable work week. Not only does it ensure that the team works on the right things at the right time, but it also helps to eliminate a tremendous amount of wasted time. Strategic prioritization prevents "pet" projects and ego trips from pushing to the front of the queue, while empowering team members with the authority and skills to say no or suggest alternatives appropriately. As a result, this approach can not only dramatically boost productivity, project turnaround time and success but also significantly boost team morale in the process.

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