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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 cup of coffeeHelp for Asking for Help
When we ask for help, from peers or from those with organizational power, we have some choices. How we go about it can determine whether we get the help we need, in time for the help to help.
A time ManagerRecovering Time: Part II
Where do the days go? How can it be that we spend eight, ten, or twelve hours at work each day and get so little done? To find more time, focus on strategy.
Ancient stairs at ruins in CambodiaThe True Costs of Indirectness
Indirect communications are veiled, ambiguous, excessively diplomatic, or conveyed to people other than the actual target. We often use indirectness to avoid confrontation or to avoid dealing with conflict. It can be an expensive practice.
Three adult male chimpanzees during a grooming sessionFavors, Payback, and Thoughtlessness
Someone at work who isn't particularly a friend or foe has asked you for a favor. What happens if you say no? Do you grant the favor? How do you decide what to do?
The Niagara River and cantilever bridgeBottlenecks: 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?

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Magic Lantern Slide of a dog jumping through a hoopComing May 4: Just-In-Time Hoop-Jumping
Securing approvals for projects, proposals, or other efforts is often called "jumping through hoops." Hoop-jumping can be time-consuming and frustrating. Here are some suggestions for jumping through hoops efficiently. Available here and by RSS on May 4.
Dr. Ben Carson speaking at CPAC 2015 in Washington, D.C., on 26 February 2015And on May 11: Characterization Risk
To characterize is to offer a description of a person, event, or concept. Characterizations are usually judgmental, and usually serve one side of a debate. And they often make trouble. Available here and by RSS on May 11.

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