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June 4, 2003 Volume 3, Issue 23
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Figuring Out What to Do First


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
A rowboatZebras 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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Conventional Foolishness  Next Issue
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Order from AmazonWant 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.

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

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Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Why phones are noisyThe True Costs of Cubicles
Although cubicles do provide facility cost savings compared with walled offices, they do so at the price of product development delays and increased product development costs. Decisions of facilities planners can have dramatic project schedule impact.
Henri Laurence Gantt, inventor of the Gantt ChartThe Tyranny of Singular Nouns
When groups try to reach decisions, and the issue in question has a name that suggests a unitary concept, such as "policy," they sometimes collectively assume that they're required to find a one-size-fits-all solution. This assumption leads to poor decisions when one-size-fits-all isn't actually required.
Roald Amundsen, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel, and Oscar Wisting at the South PoleDeciding to Change: Choosing
When organizations decide to change what they do, the change sometimes requires that they change how they make decisions, too. That part of the change is sometimes overlooked, in part, because it affects most the people who make decisions. What can we do about this?
Industrial robots assembling automobilesUnnecessary Boring Work: Part I
Work can be boring. Some of us must endure the occasional boring task, but for many, everything about work is boring. It doesn't have to be this way.
Two F-22A raptors line up for refuelingSymbolic Self-Completion and Projects
The theory of symbolic self-completion holds that to define themselves, humans sometimes assert indicators of achievement that either they do not have, or that do not mean what they seem to mean. This behavior has consequences for managing project-oriented organizations.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness, Effective Meetings and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout

Harry S. Truman (front, second from left) and Joseph Stalin (front, left) meeting at the Potsdam Conference on July 18, 1945Coming December 2: Suppressing Dissent: Part II
Disagreeing with the majority in a meeting, or in some cases, merely disagreeing with the Leader, can lead to isolation and other personal difficulties. Here is Part II of a set of tactics used by Leaders who choose not to tolerate differences of opinion, emphasizing the meeting context. Available here and by RSS on December 2.
Fog offshore near Cabrillo National Monument, CaliforniaAnd on December 9: Clearing Conflict Fog
At times, groups can become so embroiled in destructive conflict that conventional conflict resolution becomes ineffective. How does this happen? What can we do about it? Available here and by RSS on December 9.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenBqkuMyXjqHttKDAzner@ChaccxavxyVZlHiURUARoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

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Managing in Fluid Environments
Most Managing in Fluid Environmentspeople now work in environments that can best be characterized as fluid, because they're subject to continual change. We never know whats coming next. In such environments, managing — teams, projects, groups, departments, or the enterprise — often entails moving from surprise to surprise while somehow staying almost on track. It's a nerve-wracking existence. This program provides numerous tools that help managers who work in fluid environments. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Cognitive Biases and Workplace Decision-Making
For mCognitive Biases and Workplace Decision-Makingost of us, making decisions is a large part of what we do at work. And we tend to believe that we make our decisions rationally, except possibly when stressed or hurried. That is a mistaken belief — very few of our decisions are purely rational. In this eye-opening yet entertaining program, Rick Brenner guides you through the fascinating world of cognitive biases, and he’ll give concrete tips to help you control the influence of cognitive biases. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble StartsLearn how to spot troubled projects before they get out of control.
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
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