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

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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:

A hiker in the La Primavera calderaCommitment Makes It Easier
When you face obstacles, sometimes the path around or through them is difficult. Committing yourself to the path lets you focus all your energy on the path you've chosen.
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When groups of decision-makers confront complex problems, and they receive opinions from recognized experts, those opinions sometimes conflict with the group's own preferences. What tactics do groups use to reject the opinions of people with relevant expertise?
The Messerschmitt Me 262, which was the first jet fighter to fly in combatHow to Foresee the Foreseeable: Preferences
When people collaborate on complex projects, the most desirable work tends to go to those with highest status. When people work alone, they tend to spend more time on the parts of the effort they enjoy. In both cases, preferences rule. Preferences can lead us astray.
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Structures of all kinds — organizations, domains of knowledge, cities, whatever — are both enabling and limiting. To gain more of the benefits of structure, while avoiding their limits, it helps to understand this paradox and learn to recognize its effects.
A schematic representation of a MOSFETBottlenecks: Part II
When some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks," they expose the organization to risks. Managing those risks is a first step to ending the bottlenecking pattern.

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

Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout

U.S. Troops in Viet Nam, 1961-1968Coming February 10: Patterns of Conflict Escalation: Part II
When simple workplace disagreements evolve into workplace warfare, they often do so following recognizable patterns. If we can recognize the patterns early, we can intervene to prevent serious damage to relationships. Here's Part II of a catalog of some of those patterns. Available here and by RSS on February 10.
A dense Lodgepole Pine stand in Yellowstone National Park in the United StatesAnd on February 17: Conversation Despots
Some people insist that conversations reach their personally favored conclusions, no matter what others want. Here are some of their tactics. Available here and by RSS on February 17.

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

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High-Voltage Brainstorming: Leading Teams to More Brilliant Ideas Faster
AlthoHigh-Voltage Brainstormingugh most of us are very familiar with a technique known as brainstorming, many overestimate its effectiveness. Serious research indicates that, as commonly practiced, brainstorming produces results that tend to overlook some brilliant ideas, and might even include ideas that actually have little promise. In this eye opening yet entertaining program, Rick Brenner guides us as we explore the sources of the deficiencies of brainstorming, and then suggests concrete tips for mitigating those deficiencies. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

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:

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