Hair on Fire

Hair on fire. That was a definition of “Priority” I was given a couple weeks ago.

The actual story goes a little something like this: I was visiting a customer discussing Priority as it exists in their product development environment. I asked if he could make one wish to help change or improve how they managed priority, what it would be.  He replied “get me a fire extinguisher, we’re running around here like our hair is on fire and I’d like to put it out”.  Yes, if you’re wondering, at that point I did just about spit out a mouthful of coffee after which we both had a good laugh.

But all laughing aside, this is a true challenge in today’s product development environment; EVERYTHING is seen as a PRIORITY, and let’s face it, if everything is a priority, then nothing is… To add to this thought, if there is no prioritization to the irons in your fire, then how can you really give them adequate attention and be certain that your best, and most intelligent effort is being given? The answer: you can’t.  Something will give. Time lines will expand and deadlines will be missed. Bosses will frown and a customer will ultimately be greatly dissatisfied. The age old analogy of burning the candle at both ends, i.e., just throwing more hours a day at the challenge does not solve it with knowledge workers. The excitement of the challenge turns from myth buster to morale buster, and they will get burned out.

A recent analogy shared by a colleague was Shrink the Change (insert Priority). You all know this one, right? Individually or as a team, make the list, and either a) define and tackle the small ones to get them out of the way, so your bandwidth (and brain) becomes more manageable, or b) actually define a true Priority queue for these tasks.  In doing so, tradeoffs will have to be made; some will be happier with the tradeoffs than others.  But by doing so, you’ve now created an achievable path to your team’s goals. And ideally you’ve set up a series of intermediary wins that will reinforce the effort and sustain the team’s commitment. Ultimately, the small and larger wins will gain focus and push the defeatism of fire-fighting out of the spotlight. And the team will find the motivation (and brain power) to accomplish the tasks at hand, as well as playing an increasing role in defining new priorities.

So instead of beating yourself up for the thought of procrastination, pat yourself on the back for being wise to prioritize, and push some of the right tasks off until tomorrow – another good piece of advice from that colleague.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about the customer referenced above, well we were a little too late with that fire extinguisher. He’s as bald as a cue ball!