In the near-chaos of high-pressure workdays, it's easy to err in assigning task priorities. President Eisenhower is said to have summarized the problem this way: "What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important." Using the Eisenhower Matrix, popularized by Steven Covey as the Importance/Urgency Matrix, we can avoid ranking the Urgent but Less Important issues above the More Important and Non-Urgent. In "How to Foresee the Foreseeable: Preferences," Point Lookout for February 22, 2012, I noted another source of priority assignment error, which I called Appeal. This error comes from our tendency to rank as higher in priority those tasks we find appealing.
Individuals can make both of these errors, sometimes simultaneously. But things get more complicated when we consider the priority assignment errors of organizations. Here's the beginning of a catalog of causes of priority assignment errors for organizations.
- Fighting the last war
- Organizations tend to see the world in terms with which they're most familiar. This concept is captured in the idea that armies and nations are best prepared to fight the war they fought most recently, and in the idea that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
- To assign priorities realistically, approach the situation with a fresh perspective. Include people who haven't been involved in past efforts. See "Bois Sec!," Point Lookout for October 27, 2004, for more.
- Lock-in occurs in organizations when they escalate commitments to choices of inferior quality, or to courses of action demonstrably less effective than one or more alternatives, based on a belief that their prior commitments have foreclosed alternatives. In this way, they're led to assign priorities based on past decisions, rather than basing them on the current situation.
- Separate priority assignment decisions from political power. Be ruthless about accepting past errors as errors. See "Indicators of Lock-In: I," Point Lookout for March 23, 2011, for more.
- Power to the powerful
- Because power is rarely distributed evenly in organizations, the more powerful organizational actors can often use their power to modulate organizational decisions. These political actors can even influence how people assign priorities to the issues of the day, to ensure that the organization chooses a course that enhances, or at least does not threaten, the power they now hold.
- Evaluating the Organizations tend to see
the world in terms with
most familiarvalidity of someone's assertions requires evaluating his or her political positions.
- Abusing political skill
- Just as power is unevenly distributed, so is political skill. When political skill is used in furtherance of organizational goals, the organization benefits. But political skill can be used for personal advancement, which might actually conflict with organizational advancement. The politically skilled can sometimes modulate organizational decisions in their own favor by influencing priority assignment decisions.
- Knowing how you (or others) benefit from your (their own) recommendations is essential to maintaining (assessing) objectivity.
Projects never go
quite as planned. We expect that, but we don't expect disaster. How can we get better at spotting disaster when there's still time to prevent it? How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble Starts is filled with tips for executives, senior managers, managers of project managers, and sponsors of projects in project-oriented organizations. It helps readers learn the subtle cues that indicate that a project is at risk for wreckage in time to do something about it. It's an ebook, but it's about 15% larger than "Who Moved My Cheese?" Just USD 19.95. Order Now! .
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More articles on Project Management:
- The Risky Role of Hands-On Project Manager
- The hands-on project manager manages the project and performs some of the work, too. There are lots
of excellent hands-on project managers, but the job is inherently risky, and it's loaded with potential
conflicts of interest.
- Why Scope Expands: II
- The scope of an effort underway tends to expand over time. Why do scopes not contract just as often?
One cause might be cognitive biases that make us more receptive to expansion than contraction.
- False Summits: II
- When climbers encounter "false summits," hope of an early end to the climb comes to an end.
The psychological effects can threaten the morale and even the safety of the climbing party. So it is
in project work.
- On the Risk of Undetected Issues: I
- In complex projects, things might have gone wrong long before we notice them. Noticing them as early
as possible — and addressing them — is almost always advantageous. How can we reduce the
incidence of undetected issues?
- Yet More Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why
- Part III of our catalog of obstacles encountered in retrospectives, when we try to uncover why we succeeded
— or failed.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 21: The Ultimate Attribution Error at Work
- When we attribute the behavior of members of groups to some cause, either personal or situational, we tend to make systematic errors. Those errors can be expensive and avoidable. Available here and by RSS on February 21.
- And on February 28: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: I
- Briefly, when people exhibit narcissistic behavior they're engaging in activity that systematically places their own interests and welfare ahead of the interests and welfare of anyone or anything else. It's behavior that threatens the welfare of the organization and everyone employed there. Available here and by RSS on February 28.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.