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Priorities and Constraints [Decision Making
Posted on May 24, 2016 @ 07:35:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Lately I've been thinking about how to prioritize what to do first. The problem of prioritization arises, for example, in trying to figure out what renovation would be most beneficial to an old house that we are gradually fixing up. There is a long list of things that could be done to improve the look and functioning of the house and often when I think one job should have the highest priority, some constraint or opportunity may present itself that reshuffles the list to make some job gain the higher priority. For example, if the highest priority job requires a certain skillset and that skillset is not available but another skillset is, then another task that utilizes the available skillset may become the highest priority.

Sometimes when we prioritize we don't assign a clear time frame for when the priority will be addressed. Sometimes this can be a weakness in our prioritization process as putting a time frame on the task might clarify whether the skillset required will be available then, and if not, cause us to reshuffle our priorities for a particular time frame. Prioritization is, afterall, something we must engage in every day and often on an hour-by-hour basis, so putting a time frame on our task list might help us be more realistic about whether the task can be accomplished within the time frame.

These days prioritization feels more like a process of working within the constraints of labor, weather, skillsets, safety and what needs to be done. Dealing with the flush of spring growth around the farm is a dance with nature, how many helpers I have, what their skillsets are, whether they can do the work safely and what needs to be done. I have a list of tasks that I would like to see done in the next week, and some have a high priority, but if the weather is not cooperating then obviously I need to figure out what is the next best use of everyone's time. What is the next best use of everyone's time is often not simply a matter of what I want done, but also a negotiation with the helpers so as to ensure high levels of motivation to work on the jobs.

The idea that prioritization involves coming up with a rank-ordered task list represents only part of the prioritization process. The relationship between the task list order and when those tasks get done is quite dynamic and is sensitive to the constraints in effect. The selection of tasks is driven by constraints with the rank order of tasks being one of the constraints determining what gets done on a day-to-day basis.

Today we will be mowing grass to reduce competition between vines/trees and the grass. I wish I didn't have to prioritize this job but if I want to achieve my goal of growing grape vines and apple trees, this is part of the price of doing so. If I changed my goals to focus on growing vegetables instead, then grass would not be as much of a concern and would be something I might only do once a year to make hay. So we have priorities, constraints, and goals and from this brew we decide what to do on a day-to-day basis.

There are suggestions out there on how to prioritize what to do next and the book Simple Rules offers some useful suggestions in terms of tasks will "move the needle". Some companies devise a set of simple rules, perhaps 3 or 4 in number, that help guide the prioritization process towards "moving the needle" on a companies' growth. It seems to me, however, that the task list is like a business plan that can change substantially once we start to execute it and react to the constraints that we find ourselves in. How much weight should we give to the task list and how much weight should be given to the active set of constraints we are working within? Is there evidence one way or the other that companies acting according to a rigid and well defined set of priorities does better than one that is more reactive to opportunities and constraints?

I don't have any clear answers which is why I'm thinking and blogging about this issue. I do think that that prioritization involves working with constraints and that we might approach priorization decision making as more typically involving constaint-driven problem solving than task-list planning. The problem of what to do next often feels like it is completely determined by the current constraints (which includes the task list as one component). To say that I decided to do this work today because it was high on my task list is often just a nice story we tell ourselves when the reality is that the task list played a relatively minor role in comparison with the set of constaints that were active or acknowledged on that particular day. Prioritization decision making is more of a quasi-rational process than a fully analytical process of deciding what to do next.

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