Figuring Out What to Do First
by Rick Brenner
Whether we belong to a small project team or to an executive team, we have limited resources and seemingly unlimited problems to deal with. How do we decide which problems are important? How do we decide where to focus our attention first?
Martine looked at the agenda, then at the clock. No way. As everyone else continued to add items, she wondered how they would ever get through it all in one meeting. Back from her reverie, she spoke up.
"I have another item — decide what to address today, and how we'll ever get to the others in this lifetime." A few chuckles in the room. Humor always helps, she thought.
Peter, her best buddy, added, "Put down 'Extending my lifetime.'" More chuckles.
Figuring out which problem to address first — triaging the problems — could probably be on many agendas. Here are a few tips for setting priorities.
- Hunt like the lion hunts for zebra
- Zebras run in herds to confuse the lion. Since the number in the herd of problems you face is a problem in itself, work on reducing the numbers. Single out whatever you can, focus on it, and eliminate it. See "The Zebra Effect," Point Lookout for January 31, 2001, for more.
- Use the Pareto Principle (80/20 rule)
- Find out which 20% of the problems account for 80% of the costs, and focus on them first. Use the resources you free to address the rest. See "Don't Worry, Anticipate!," Point Lookout for October 3, 2001, for more.
- Apply the leaky rowboat model
- A rowboat with a leak above the water line won't leak. You can ignore some problems because the conditions that make them troublesome are provably absent. Address those problems later.
- Lighten the load
- When several issues
are equally urgent,
how do we decide
what to do first?
- Some problems, if repaired, render others irrelevant. Perhaps you have some cargo, which, if jettisoned, will make the rowboat float high enough so that its leaks will be above the waterline. Addressing some problems can move others above the water line.
- Understand why the lottery works
- The Lottery works because we understand $30 million much better than we understand one chance in 50 million. Humans tend to overvalue consequences, and undervalue likelihood. Consider both consequences and likelihood.
- If you plan to re-sod the lawn, take advantage of it
- If you plan to re-sod your lawn, the fact that the patch over by the flower beds is now a mix of different grasses is no big deal. Don't fix what you know will be obliterated by an imminent upgrade.
- If you plan to re-sod the lawn, prepare for it
- In that same patch, re-sodding probably won't help if there are weeds with deep roots. Before you re-sod, get rid of deep-rooted weeds.
- Check the sod
- Make sure the sod has the right kind of grass and no weeds. Don't plant new problems.
- Remember Butch and Sundance
- At the top of the cliff, Butch proposes to Sundance that they jump to the river far below. Sundance is afraid because he can't swim, but Butch points out that the fall will probably kill them. Once you commit to a strategy, don't fret about issues that arise only if the strategy works. Go for it.
One thing to avoid: exhaustive inventory of all your problems. Get started — one of them might nail you while you're still counting. Top Next Issue
Want to watch Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid again? Paul Newman, Robert Redford. Director: George Roy Hill. Twentieth Century Fox, 1969. Order from Amazon.com.
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Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 24: The Perils of Novel Argument
- When people use novel or sophisticated arguments to influence others, the people they're trying to influence are sometimes subject to cognitive biases triggered by the nature of the argument. This puts them at a disadvantage relative to the influencer. How does this happen? Available here and by RSS on December 24
- And on December 31: The Power and Hazards of Anecdotes: Part I
- Anecdotes are short stories — sometimes just a single sentence. They're powerful tools of persuasion, but they can also be dangerous, to both anecdote tellers and anecdote listeners. Available here and by RSS on December 31
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