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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

The Art of Setting Priorities

The Art of Setting Priorities post image

This is the theme which comes to me over and over again recently – setting priorities. When I discuss product management setting priorities pops up. When I talk about managing projects setting priorities is there. When I’m coaching setting priorities is one of subjects we go through. When I’m covering my recent pet peeve, which is people management versus technical leadership, I can’t omit setting priorities.

Also, you definitely heard about choosing important things over urgent ones, which is nothing else but setting priorities. And when you’re totally overloaded, like I was recently, setting priorities is, well, your top priority.

A disclosure: I’m not that good in setting priorities. I tend to believe I can cope with more tasks than I really can and I’m learning rather slowly to improve that. Not really a superhero you’ve expected, eh?

Anyway I do have a trick which helps me to set priorities. The trick goes like that:

I hate doing half-assed job.

Yes, that’s all. Aversion to crappy job always helped me to make difficult trade-offs. And I don’t mean I’m a perfectionist. Far from that. Ask my wife, she’ll tell you. But then I really don’t like moments when I know I’m screwing the thing up. Objective excuses don’t help. After all they are only those: excuses.

If I do a crappy job because I struggle with finding enough time it means I shouldn’t have taken the task in the first place. That’s not an objective reason. That’s an excuse. If I have something more important to do than the task under discussion, well, see the previous point.

The basic strategy is to analyze all the things you’re involved in and answer honestly how many of them you can cope with without doing half-assed job.

It doesn’t mean going through the list from the highest to the lowest priority. You will find some tasks which take you very little time and you consider them valuable but not top-priority but you will also find those which are pretty high on the list but require more effort than you can possibly invest. While you won’t be able to cope with the latter, the former shouldn’t be a big deal.

This evaluation should be done over and over again. And yes it means at one moment of time you’ll be able to do more things concurrently than in other point on timeline.

And don’t forget about that venture called “family.”

in: personal development

8 comments… add one

  • Glen B Alleman November 16, 2010, 2:27 pm

    The Analytic Hierarchy Process (AHP) and Paired Comparison analysis (Borda Ranking) is the method used to prioritize contents of projects we work.

  • Michał Paluchowski November 16, 2010, 2:28 pm

    I don’t really have problems with deciding which tasks of mine are top priority. I know the value outcome of each and based on that can pretty well judge them. What I do know as well is how much work goes into completing each top-priority task. That more or less consciously leads me to select easier tasks to do first and postponing the truly valuable ones. That’s a problem I have to deal with.

  • Pawel Brodzinski November 16, 2010, 3:58 pm


    So the question is: would you be able to deal with all tasks which fall into “truly valuable” category?

    My wild-ass guess is majority of us classify as truly valuable much more things than we can chew. So you go back again to prioritizing – which tasks are truly, truly valuable and which are only truly valuable.

    The source of the problem is in the same place, yet we look at it outcomes differently.

  • Pawel Brodzinski November 16, 2010, 4:06 pm


    I look at the problem wider than just from a perspective of prioritizing tasks within the project. If you don’t limit yourself just to your daily job, i.e. you run a blog, this is your additional venture you invest time into.

    If you run a local professional community or do some voluntary work these are other threads you have to cope with. And they don’t fall into simple scientific analysis. How would you value one’s engagement into organizing local TEDx event?

    And then, even at workplaces, we deal with different issues. Some of them are tightly related to projects, but others (sharpening the saw, anyone?) take time as well, yet can’t be easily labeled.

    And that’s where “don’t do half-assed job” kicks in. If I have top priority project on my back I limit the time I spent on self-development to minimum and I cut off all additional activities besides a couple of the most important ones, etc.

  • Piotr Leszczysnki November 17, 2010, 12:31 am

    Prioritizing is imho one of the most important tasks we do. And the funny thing is that we often give it to small priority. It takes time. It requires effort. And you have to do it continuously.
    My biggest problem with setting priorities is that I change them to often. I start doing one thing which is valuable. I give it high priority. And then another activity pops up and I find it more valuable.
    I also believe that you should have groups of priorities in different areas of our life. You should have your job staff (work, blog, community connected with your job) prioritized and you should have your plans for future prioritized (building a house, vacation) and your family plans (learn how to play piano so you can learn your children) and your free time and your health. And here comes the hard part – prioritizing between those groups. I really suck with this one.
    Every day I try to have 3 top priority tasks to acomplish (http://zenhabits.net/purpose-your-day-most-important-task). Having more is having too much.

  • Pawel Brodzinski November 17, 2010, 1:20 am

    If every now and then new tasks seem to have top priority (higher than tasks you’re already doing) than my guess would be that something is wrong with initial judgment how important the new thing is really.

    Also we usually fall into the trap of keeping all options open. Simply keeping the option open usually takes way more time than we plan and than we’d like to invest, yet we don’t want to resign from potential future gains the option might yield.

    But at the end, it all ends up with deciding which few things you’re going to do. And aversion to half-assed performances helps to abandon some ventures we’d like to be involved otherwise.

  • MH Lines November 19, 2010, 12:27 pm

    Pawel –

    I’ve found that being on an agile team, the level of complexity on prioritization has only increased. Lately, even using some aspects of Kanban, that prioritization has been the hardest part. And the family part, well, that’s the hardest part of prioritization overall.

    Thanks for the great insight –

  • Pawel Brodzinski November 20, 2010, 11:26 am

    MH Lines,

    Well, the difference is that the more flexible the method is the more power you give to the product owner. With Big-Design-Up-Front approach you expect to set all the priorities at the beginning of the project and then you just try to follow the plan.

    With Scrum it isn’t that different on the beginning – you more or less set all the priorities at the beginning, but you allow product owner to adjust them before every iteration.

    And then with Kanban you expect to see priorities only for a short period of time but you want product owner/product manager to set priorities constantly.

    The basic pattern is you can care less and less about initial priorities but need to care more and more about setting right short-term priorities all the time.

    And yes, with this venture called family setting priorities is the scary part.

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