Wednesday, April 27, 2011

When Everything Is High Priority, Nothing Is High Priority!

Your boss comes into your office to tell you to drop everything you’re doing and start working immediately on a new project because it is the highest priority project in the company. You look at him and say, “OK, but what about these other three projects you told me were the highest priority?  I can put all of my attention on one of these, but not all four!” Your boss then reiterates that all are of the highest priority. What do you do?

The need to prioritize is a fact of life. We all must do it, every day, in virtually every aspect of our lives. Is it more important to fix a broken window before a snow storm hits, or to take out the garbage? Is it more important to get a product released that is expected to double company revenues, or to get a product released that will have virtually no impact on company revenues? Some choices, such as these, are obvious, but others can be difficult and there may not be a right or wrong choice. Still, everything cannot be high or the highest priority. Choices must be made, and priorities must be set! 

I once worked at a company where weekly meetings were held to review the status of all of the projects currently underway. These meetings included senior management and the heads and critical members of every department, including sales, marketing, finance, engineering, manufacturing, customer support, education & training, IT, etc. Sounds reasonable, right? While the intent was purportedly to get an update on project status, in reality these meeting served as a weekly opportunity for different departments to snipe at each other (with senior management’s tacit acceptance), and for senior management to pick the loser of the week to receive embarrassment and disdain. So bad did these meetings become they received the nickname “The Bataan Death March” meetings since many of the attendees had to walk with dread from one of the company’s buildings to the other, fearful that they would become that week’s recipient of scorn. During these meetings every project underway would indeed be discussed, and it never ceased to amaze me that the simplest project (e.g. development of a simple molded plastic piece used as a bracket) was treated with as much attention and importance as the project to develop and release the most essential and critical product the company had. There was virtually no assessment or assignment of priority. Every project was treated as if it was of the highest priority, and woe be to the person who would suggest any project was of less priority than any other project. Of course the result was that nothing was recognized as being of the highest priority. And senior management could not be convinced to treat things differently. To say this was frustrating is a huge understatement, and it adversely affected the dedication and drive of the employees.

This was a case more extreme than I have seen anywhere else, but it still existed, to lesser degrees, at other companies I am familiar with. A failure to recognize that different activities have different priorities can kill a company. Choices must be made and priorities must be set in order for companies to succeed. Companies must recognize that they need to keep their eyes on THE GOAL, and THE GOAL for any company is to make money; that is, to be profitable (see Keep Your Eyes on THE GOAL!)! If companies cannot make money, then before too long they will not be around, and no one in the company will have a job. Working in a company where everything, and therefore nothing, is the highest priority can be a highly demoralizing experience.

So what can you do when your boss or others in management seem to be incapable of making choices or recognizing priorities?

First, just ask them what they think the priorities are. In order to be effective, a manager must constantly make decisions based on priorities. Failure to respond to such questions is simply unacceptable, and will tell you a lot about your manager (and not good things!). If they respond with clear and well reasoned priority assignments, then move forward in confidence that you are working on what is most critical. If they later come back to you and ask why you aren’t working on something else, remind them that they told you what you are working on now was the highest priority. If they simply can’t recognize which choice or path is of higher priority or insist that all are of highest priority, then attempt to educate them by asking (or pointing out) which will have more impact on revenues or net income? Which will be of higher demand from customers? Which will require more or less effort? Which will have more or less impact on other priorities? Etc. If they still can’t set priorities, then choose your own and state your reasons why. In fact stating you choice and reasons why in a written document or an email may be a way to make your decision public and to give you a level of protection.

The fact that your boss can’t make a decision should not stop you from doing your job. It really seems inconceivable that a grown man or woman, especially one who is supposed to be a manager, can’t recognize that choices need to be made about what path to pursue or about which of two or more choices is a higher priority. Sometimes shame or embarrassment is the only way to shock someone out of their delirium (see also Embarrassment Rules The World?). Force them to make a damn decision!

Decisions about priorities are essential in deciding what work should proceed and what should slow down. When resources are available multiple projects can move forward at the same time, but ultimately priorities must be set and decisions must be made. Everything cannot be the highest priority. When everything is high priority, nothing is!

Copyright 2011 Workplace Insanity, All Rights Reserved


  1. This just happened to me yesterday. This is a lucid and well-written article.

    Thanks for your wisdom


  2. To Anonymous,
    Thank you for your kind words! It is unfortunate that this happens all too often.

    Thanks - Tom

  3. Nice post. I would rather say it is an extremely well written one and the way it has been elaborated is quite smart.Priority Management Dublin Ireland

    1. To San Mah,
      Thank you for your kind words. If there is anything I can do to help you, please let me know.

      Thanks - Tom


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