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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:
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Most of us interpret a confident manner as evidence of competence, and a hesitant manner as evidence of lesser ability. Recent research suggests that confidence and competence are inversely correlated. If so, our assessments of credibility and competence are thrown into question.

A captive white rhinoFour Popular Ways to Mismanage Layoffs: Part II
Staff reduction is needed when expenses overtake revenue. But when layoffs are misused, or used too late, they can harm the organization more than they help. Here's Part II of an exploration of four common patterns of mismanagement, and some suggestions for those managers and other employees who recognize the patterns in their own companies.

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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.

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

Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout

The Niagara River and cantilever bridgeComing February 4: Bottlenecks: Part I
Some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks." The people around them repeatedly find themselves stuck, awaiting responses or decisions. Why does this happen and what are the costs? Available here and by RSS on February 4
.
A schematic representation of a MOSFETAnd on February 11: Bottlenecks: 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. Available here and by RSS on February 11
.

Coaching services

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

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Public seminars

Human-Centered Risk Management
Most Human-Centered Risk Managementof us can assess technological risks, but risks related to human behavior tend to resist our best efforts. This session provides a framework for evaluating risks related to the behavior of individuals, teams, organizations and people generally. Human-centered risk differs from technological or market risk, because objective evaluation requires acknowledging personal and organizational limitations and failures. Since some of those limitations and failures might apply to the people assessing the risks, or to their superiors, there's a tendency to deny them or to explain them away. Our approach examines capability, organization, context, risk mitigation, and workplace politics. It has tools for guiding the assessment and management of human-centered risk, and we show how to extend these tools to suit your situation. You'll learn how to identify sources of risk in human behavior; recognize systemic and individual barriers to acknowledging risk; assess the effects of organizational turbulence; determine the risk associated with inappropriate internal risk transfer; estimate the effects of team dysfunction, toxic conflict and turnover; and measure the impact of workplace politics. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Risk Management for Leaders
On 14The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Risk Management for Leaders December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in risk management and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at risk management from the vantage point of history. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:

The Politics of Meetings for People Who Hate Politics
ThereThe Politics of Meetings for People Who Hate Politics's a lot more to running an effective meeting than having the right room, the right equipment, and the right people. With meetings, the whole really is more than the sum of its parts. How the parts interact with each other and with external elements is as important as the parts themselves. And those interactions are the essence of politics for meetings. This program explores techniques for leading meetings that are based on understanding political interactions, and using that knowledge effectively to meet organizational goals. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Decision-Making for Team Leaders
EffecDecision-Making for Team Leaderstive group decision-making requires far more than knowing how to organize a discussion or take a vote. This program is designed for both new and experienced team leaders or team sponsors, managers, project managers, portfolio managers, program managers, and executives and general managers. It is especially valuable to people who work in organizations that confront fluid environments, in which decisions must be made in the context of uncertainty. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
MasteChanging How We Change: The Essence of Agilityry of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. 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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