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Priority, urgency and focus

Today I saw an excellent blog post by Merlin Mann, about priority: Mud rooms, red letters and real priorities. The post explains why A priority is observed, not manufactured or assigned. The claim is bold but I have to agree with Merlin Mann’s thinking (note: he slightly confuses priority with urgency, both examples in blog are both urgent and high priority).

Here’s my favorite part of the blog post:

An item is either unique or it is not. A woman is either pregnant or she is not. An item is either the priority or it is not. One-bit. Mutually exclusive. One ring to rule them all.

This reminded me of a recent blog post by my colleague, Sami Honkonen, about act of prioritization: Setting priority is selecting and letting go. In order to have any useful priority, you need to choose what not to do. Act of prioritization, as Merlin Mann puts it, is about saying: no, no, nope, not today, no, later, sorry not this time.

Priority is observable, you can not “set” priorities. Look at the things you need to accomplish. Are the post-its on the wall moving according to “priority”? Are people talking “priority” or doing priority? Are “priorities” changed, arbitrarily or based on office politics?

Having several priorities is nothing but cheating yourself. Having more than one priority means you have none. Juggling between priorities is entertaining, but does not help you or your work. I like the new definition of Scrum Product Backlog: it is no longer called a prioritized list, it is an ordered list. Subtle but significant change.

Priority must not be confused with urgency. One consultant asked team “What is your most important thing to do today?” and once he got answers he continued “Did you complete that before you brushed your teeth this morning?“. Priority is not the thing you do first: it’s what you do all the time. Sometimes the priority requires changes in plans or dramatic & immediate action and that is the most observable part of priority.

Priority is not about rushing or doing things hastily. Nor it is about panic action or adrenaline-driven primitive reaction (well, sometimes it could be but hopefully not always). Priority is about making sure the most important thing gets satisfactory completed. Note: satisfactory here does not mean “minimum acceptable level”, it means satisfaction.

Focusing and selecting not-do’s is painful. That’s why “priority” is a great excuse. Instead of doing something I can say “It has priority”. As a manager I can stay high on adrenaline running between high-priority meetings all day. “Priorities” is a good alternative for real decision making.

We often call priorities things that are just to-do lists. At worst (as Merlin Mann points out) “priority” can be emotional obsession: something that gives us satisfaction as long as it is not done.

Merlin Mann says priority is observable and unexpected events make priorities visible (sudden illness, accidents etc). I make even bolder claim: it is the usual and expected events that also tell priorities. Family member does not need to fall ill to make your priority visible. Customer does not need to complain to make “customer first”.

The real priority is visible on how you organize your life and work. Do your priorities come in naturally? Does following your priority feel like gliding downstream or swimming upstream? Do you have the needed resources (time, competency, information, money) to follow your priority? In general, do feel like living with or fighting for your priorities?

If you have to “set” or “communicate” or “enforce” priorities, you are doing it wrong. If you feel content with your priorities, you most likely get things done. And if you get things done, you probably got your priorities right.

Having only one priority sounds harsh. Yes it is and it is supposed to be. We as human beings are capable of doing only one thing at one time. That’s why the priority is so strong. And that’s why priorities kills the idea completely.

Note: Not everything has to submit to the priority. If the important things (priority) in my life or work is going well, I definitely do and think “lower priority” (sic!) things. Imagine a pilot on an commercial airplane: her priority is safe flight and as long as everything goes according to that priority she can have a nap or read book or chat with other crew members. Priority does not mean staring at monitors and squeezing the controls as hard as you can. In addition to taking action, priority is also about making things visible and making sure you can take action immediately when things go the wrong way.

Categories: Agile and Lean, Team work
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