Let me get straight to the point. Being busy is not the same as being productive. If all day long, you are fighting fires, you may be busy but is the work impactful? Are you really delivering business value? Are you providing meaningful work to your team? As a Software Manager, one of your prime duties is to determine what tasks/activities your engineers should work on. It’s all about prioritization and trade-offs. You don’t have an infinite source of time, money, or resources. And so you absolutely need to prioritize tasks with high returns.
The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.
– Stephen Covey
Learn to Prioritize Right
Prioritizing tasks effectively is an essential skill for every manager. Based upon changing needs of your team and customer, your priorities will shift and that’s OK. What is not OK is that you are not clear about it or that you have not communicated with your team.
Simplicity boils down to two steps: Identify the essential. Eliminate the rest.
– Leo Babauta
How to Prioritize?
How do you decide what tasks are important? How do you know what tasks have the highest return on investment? In this blog, I discuss 2 Prioritization Frameworks that I have repeatedly used to prioritize tasks/activities for my team.
Eisenhower Matrix of Urgency v/s Importance
The Eisenhower Matrix was designed by Dwight D. Eisenhower, a five-star general during World War II and 34th president of the United States. I first read about this in Stephen Covey’s best-selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
This framework uses a matrix with 4 quadrants to determine the priority of your tasks. Your ability to identify and categorize tasks into these 4 quadrants will help you focus on the long-term, get you out of fire fighting mode, and create big wins for you.
- Quadrant 1 – Important and Urgent – Do It: Tasks that have clear deadlines and require your urgent attention – Do them now. Tasks that need immediate action else there will be repercussions, fall into this Quadrant. Example: Deadlines, project deliveries.
- Quadrant 2 – Important and Not Urgent – Defer it (schedule these for future): Tasks need to be done, but they aren’t urgent. These activities help you achieve long-term goals. It is easy to put them off as they may not have a deadline. However, completing these tasks will allow you to focus on your long-term goals. Example: Planning for next quarter
- Quadrant 3 – Urgent and Not Important – Delegate it: Tasks with a deadline but that don’t require your expertise can be handled by someone else. Delegate these tasks.
- Quadrant 4 – Not Important and Not Urgent – Drop it: If these tasks are neither urgent nor important, you should not spend any of your team’s time on these activities. Remove them.
Value v/s Effort
Another Prioritization Framework to use is Value v/s Effort. This is the traditional model of a 2×2 matrix, using only 2 variables – Value and Effort. Value implies what tasks drive the most benefits towards the long-term goal of your organization. Effort implies how difficult it is for your team to deliver this task. Factors that affect Effort include infrastructure cost, development time, complexity, and operational burden involved in carrying out the tasks.
- Quick Wins (high value and low effort) – Do these first: This Quadrant holds tasks that have a high value to your customer or stakeholder and the effort is low. This is the low-hanging fruit and gives the biggest bang for the buck. You should focus on these first.
- Big Bets (high value and high effort) – Plan for these: These tasks have high value, they are aligned with your organization’s strategic goals. But they are also high effort, which means you need to plan for them. Be selective about which tasks are in this quadrant and keep the list small, use them sparingly. This is where you need to keep your eyes. To prevent fallout, create milestones and a project schedule.
- Fill-ins (low value and low effort) – Do these in your spare time: These are unimportant, nice to have tasks. So don’t prioritize them. Keep them ready for when your team needs downtime. Bug fixes that are not blockers fall in this category. They represent small wins, so they are still nice to do once in a while.
- Time sinks (low value and high effort) – Skip them or Defer for later: These tasks offer low value but need high effort. Skip them, there is no need to churn your team on these if the results provide low value. If you feel like these tasks cannot be dropped, re-prioritize at a later time.
- Know what matters most to you, your team, and your organization.
- Aligning your prioritized tasks with your goals is really important for long-term success.
- I learned this Analogy at Amazon. Know your glass ball and your rubber balls. If you drop the glass balls, they will break and hurt you. If you drop the rubber balls, they will bounce back. The bottom line is that you really need to be ok with the tasks you decide to drop.
- Prioritization needs to be flexible to adapt to new urgent tasks.
- Prioritization needs to allow for growth opportunities, rather than crisis management.
- Prioritization is effective when we bring in frequent reflection.
- David Allen says “Frequently reviewing your task list and priorities is key in regaining control and focus”.
Prioritization Methods are not exclusive. There is no right or wrong framework. It all depends on your organization, your team, and the tasks at hand. Don’t feel limited by these choices. Feel free to explore a combination of the two frameworks or even explore a new alternative.