How you prioritise tasks defines the success of any project. Prioritising correctly can make the difference between an easy-to-manage, successful, on-budget project delivered on time and a stressful, failed project delivered late and over budget. But how do you prioritise tasks? And what can trip up you and your team, even if you have the best of intentions?
The urgency effect
We’re all familiar with the idea of urgent tasks and important tasks. Urgent tasks are ones that are getting very close to their deadline, while important tasks are the ones that will contribute the most to our desired outcome. A task can be very low value but still seem urgent if we feel that we need to get it done today. Another task can be vital to the success of a project, but if the deadline is a long way off, then it is not urgent.
Research has shown that people consistently prioritise urgent tasks over more important tasks. This persists even if the results of completing the urgent tasks are of very little value, and even if there’s ample time to complete all the tasks, meaning that the sense of urgency is actually an illusion. Researchers call this effect “mere urgency”, where the urgency of a task distracts us from the fact that the task itself is not important.
We tend to do the (rare) tasks that are urgent and important first. Understandably, we also leave the tasks that are not urgent and not important until last. However, in the middle, where we have a lot of medium-priority tasks, we keep prioritising urgent tasks with a low payoff, in terms of results, over important ones with a higher payoff.
Managers can, with the right systems, overcome the urgency effect. It’s done by keeping team members focused on outcomes over timelines. It can help to rank each task within a project by importance so that team members can clearly see when they are faced with a very high-priority task, carrying a very important outcome, over a very low-priority task that might have a tighter deadline.
Realistic timelines can also help to overcome the urgency effect. People revert to prioritising based solely on urgency when they perceive themselves as being pushed for time. When they feel that they have time to complete all their tasks, they are more likely to prioritise by importance.
Balancing individual and organisational priorities
There is often conflict between individual priorities and organisational or project priorities. In practice, this is often a problem of too many priorities, poorly communicated. If a team receives the message that there are several different priorities, then it can lead to team members placing self-identified priorities over priorities that are actually more important to the project outcomes.
The top priority must be clearly identified. If you state that both cutting costs and user satisfaction are top priorities, then every time an individual has to make a decision, it will be made on their self-identified highest priority. To work as a cohesive team, every member must know which to prioritise with every single decision they make.
It’s also important to accept that priorities can and do change – often as a result of new issues identified by team members. Therefore, teams need a system that allows team members to communicate easily so that they can log updates, new information, or factors that may lead to a priority shift for the whole team.
Approach to risk will influence priorities
Within any project, the leader’s approach to risk will influence the way that priorities are set. More risk-averse leadership generally means that there will be a “spread” of priorities, creating more, and less ambitious, goals and outcomes for the project. Less risk-averse leadership will have fewer priorities, but they will often be more focused and more ambitious.
Neither approach is wrong, but they will affect how your project is managed and completed. As we’ve already mentioned, if there are multiple priorities, then they need to be managed carefully to ensure a cohesive approach. Most importantly, there needs to be a clearly identified top priority, to guide individual decisions and help team members prioritise important tasks. Having a spread of priorities also means ensuring that all priorities are compatible – otherwise, team members are at risk of working against each other by focusing on competing priorities.
The hierarchy of purpose within an organisation
Understanding an organisation’s hierarchy of purpose is key to understanding what factors should influence priorities. Defining the overreaching purpose of the organisation, and the strategic vision supporting that purpose, is key to setting all future priorities for the organisation, and for individual projects that the organisation implements.
The hierarchy of purpose is also key to eliminating priorities. If a current priority does not serve that purpose or support that vision, then it is time to make a tough choice and abandon that priority. It’s also vital to do this with individual projects. Every outcome that a project team is working towards should be aligned with the organisation’s purpose and vision.
Managing priorities within the project management team
There are a few best practices to follow when managing project priorities.
- Brief the entire team on project outcomes and priorities.
- Build the organisational and project priorities into the project schedule.
- Ensure that every team member can easily access the project schedule.
- Use a collaborative system that allows instant updates on completed or shelved tasks.
- Create a project backlog system, and identify tasks that are progressing well.
- Predict and communicate incoming priority shifts.
- Consistently keep team members focused on important tasks.
Much of the above can be done with good project management software. The right software can allow the project schedule to be accessed, viewed and updated by every team member. Immediate communication of when a task is completed, shelved or down-prioritised, along with a clear picture of which tasks are falling behind schedule and which are ahead of schedule, can have a major impact on managing team priorities.