By: Alon Cohen
I keep hearing the word prioritization, we need to prioritize, we need to focus, and my question is, do we really? Is taking a sip of coffee, while driving, considered a changed of priority on the road?
Many employees in different organization find themselves in a situation where they need to, or are asked to, perform simultaneous tasks. If you find yourself in this situation you face the usual dilemma of what to do first. Most people in this situation go to they’re boss and ask the boss to set priorities for each task. The boss prioritizes the tasks for you, and you are happily working on your top priority task.
You can now focus on your single task and you do not need to consider the company or other people in the organization. In case someone asks why you are working on A and not B, your ass is covered.
Your boss is happy since now you are out of his/her hair, and most importantly you are now working on what’s important for your boss’s career advancement.
However, contrary to the common thinking, you will find that prioritization although seems like the right thing to do, is mostly done in the wrong way for the wrong reasons and will harm the organization rather than help it.
Why is that?
Tasks that you were asked to do, while you work on your top priority task, are not getting done and in many cases block other people from doing their job until you can provide them with that missing piece they need from you. In essence you are crippling your company by blocking other resources from being productive.
Now, say a new fancier task for a larger customer comes along. It is now given the highest priority; you drop everything, and start working on the new more lucrative task. All that, until the next highest priority task comes along causing you to drop the task you’re now on. Before you notice, you have spent a whole year starting new tasks but never finishing any of them.
Not only that you crippled others by not performing tasks they needed from you, you yourself have become a complete waste of resources for the company by doing all you were asked but not finishing any task your were given.
Simply put, the standard prioritization that we use tends to starve all other tasks but the top one. Exclusively working on your top priority task will render many, otherwise effective employees that need your inputs, worthless, and hence can and will bog down the whole company.
The analogy is that every time you take a picture in your smartphone or update an APP, your music will stop until the smart phone finish’s storing, installing or updating the picture or APP. In fact, maybe the music will never start until you re-start it. Clearly if your phone is behaving that way, it is not as smart as you want it to be.
The issue is that the people, who prioritize tasks, seldom consider the interrupting tasks length or complexity or the people dependent on them as a prioritization factor. In most cases the prioritizers see only their own KPIs or global company priority list as the main factor in the prioritization process. As I have shown, operating in the above fashion, in most cases, yields bad results.
Here is what I propose: start thinking like a Smart Phone! Look at the global picture!
While you work on your highest priority task, an interrupting task may come and require your attention. If that interrupting task is relatively short and blocking other resources in the company you should give that task higher priority. However if you, save your current context, perform an organized fast context switch, and work on the interrupting task in order to enable other resources in the company to be productive.
Once that interrupting task is done, recall your saved context, and switch back to your main task and work faster to recover lost time.
This does not mean the company or management changed it’s priority. It is not your frown upon “constant change” in priorities that people complain about; this mode of operation is called Interrupt Handling. You are still driving even if you take a sip of your coffee from time to time.
If you consider yourself ambitious with aspiration to climb fast in your organization, you should master the art of Interrupt-Handling and fast Context-Switching even in cases where one interrupting task happens inside another. The key is to be able to maintain the integrity of the context of your work at each level “inception style” and be able to come back to it and finish the abandoned tasks.
For example say you are a programmer working on big complex project while bugs are discovered in your currently published SAAS (Service) product. If you still think like a single core single threaded non-real time operating system with a simple priority task list, programing is probably NOT the job for you.
After all if you don't understand how to handle interrupts correctly, how can you program your APP or SAAS to handle those situations. And if you already launched your SAAS, how would you be able to handle the ongoing customers’ requests for bug fixes without being able to handle Interrupts?
As an employee if you find yourself saying to your boss or co-worker “I know you need this, but do you want me to drop A and work on B?” you just defined yourself, for your boss or co-worker, as an undependable, non ambitious employee who should be looked over in the next round of promotions.
The good news is that interrupts happen all the time. You might just have another chance to redeem yourself. If you see an Interrupt coming do yourself a favor and handle it!