Product backlog often works like a Pez dispenser. Work continuously piles up, and assignments that pop up from the top of the dispenser are tackled head-on. This dynamic is apparent in every work setting and for every department. In a product setting, for example, the VP of product functions as the head of the Pez dispenser, dispensing assignments to the team as they come. But when work is prioritized in such a mechanical way, it's easy to lose focus on the actual product development. While a lot of gems are sitting in your org – the dispenser – rigid or mechanical prioritization doesn't allow them to shine. Product features or functionality which could have serious long-term impact get lost along the way.
Prioritization is an ongoing struggle, and many methodologies have been put in place in an attempt to mitigate it. Last-in, first-out (LIFO) and first-in, first-out (FIFO) are prime examples. Another more evolved methodology is the Eisenhower Decision Matrix, which delineates between urgent and important tasks.
While prioritizing within a concrete framework is a step forward, these methods still beg some introspection. While the FIFO/LIFO approach is without doubt too mechanical, the decision matrix is based on subjective, intuitive distinctions, which is often a double-edged sword. For instance, most of us frequently fall into the trap of believing that all urgent activities are also important, leading us to de facto fall back into a mechanical mode of operation.
As leaders, our ability to prioritize (and to help others do so) is crucial to the success of broader business initiatives. It's not enough to unify behind a consistent vision if, at the team level, managers fail to communicate what takes priority in the day to day. The following ideas have helped me create workflows that serve the business while maximizing everyone's contribution.
Prioritize your team’s workload according to productivity archetypes
Alas, not all is lost. Below you will find the perfect solution to help each team member successfully prioritize. After you identify each person'’s productivity archetype, you can provide personalized coaching on prioritization. These individualized methodologies make the most of our inherent inclinations and allow us to bypass any associated pitfalls.
Archetype I: The stressed mathematician
The persona: The "check off the list" persona is focused on getting things done in a linear, logical and mathematical manner. The goal is often to get as much done as possible, with urgent tasks routinely taking priority over important ones in the name of achieving a sense of progress. Archetype I is often locked into a mechanical mode, zooming through the Pez dispenser according to a FIFO, or even worse, a LIFO logic, losing sight of the significance and forward-looking impact of assignments and tasks.
Suggested workflow: Alternate urgent assignments that need to get done now with important assignments with long-term impact and out of the box potential. Go from a "1,2,3,4,5" workflow to a "1,x,2,y,3,z" workflow. Acknowledge that tasks of the second kind will often demand more time and focus and will not be easily and neatly dealt with from start to finish. However, allow yourself to be consoled by the fact that done thoroughly, these tasks have the potential to eliminate many urgent tasks that will fall on you down the road if you don't tend to your strategic, long-term initiatives.
Archetype II: The scatter-brained creative
The persona: The "big-picture visionary" persona often lacks focus and methodology. Intuitive prioritization is often solely determined by a personal inclination towards preferred tasks, notwithstanding their urgency, importance or hierarchy on the list. While this archetype is sometimes aware that some of the Pez candies have spilled out of the dispenser, and some are half-eaten inside blocking the upward movement of others, nothing much can be done.
Suggested workflow: Combine related assignments and prioritize based both on need and on which assignment serves as a foundation for other assignments. Acknowledge that some tasks that your mind doesn't yearn to tackle are essential for letting your creativity shine by creating the time and space for you to practice it with a quiet mind and a clear conscience. Also, make peace with the idea that some assignments are less fun and fulfilling than others. A fresh cup of coffee can help that idea go down less painfully.
Archetype III: The hyperproductive burnout
The persona: The "I'm on top of it" persona is a multitasker who gets important tasks done in an orderly fashion while simultaneously trying to address long-term high potential, high-impact assignments. On the face of it, the balancer has the best of both worlds. But there is often a hidden price tag. On the one hand, unless you're a fighter pilot, multitasking is nothing but an urban legend. It doesn't really work. Task switching takes a huge toll on both the results and the individual. This is where another tax is hidden: Doing everything simultaneously and all the time often leads to massive burnout.
Suggested workflow: Instead of doing things simultaneously, try and group "now" and "later" tasks, and alternate between them so you have a well-rounded work process. Actively schedule time for more important tasks, and commit to dedicating it only to your assignment of focus. Acknowledge that while this methodology might on the face of it slow you down, it will lead to better results overall and to a real balanced you, which is not less important.
Archetype IV: The over-scheduled achiever
The persona: The "don't worry, I got it!" persona constantly addresses tasks he or she thinks will have a high impact in order to impress his or her boss. This archetype often misses important "menial tasks." They're often disconnected from their own judgment of work priorities, which can lead to a protracted workflow. Crucially, it can also lead to alienation and frustration when, on the one hand, their efforts are not fully appreciated, and, on the other hand, not enough progress is being made from a subjective standpoint.
Suggested workflow: Instead of centering all your energy around multiple high-impact tasks, try and actually adopt a more linear approach of things that need to get done today and add one high impact item either at the beginning or end of a workday. Acknowledge the fact that while recognition is super important, sticking to your own version of reality has a lot to recommend itself to. Find solace in the fact that at the end of the day, you achieved what you set out to do. Sometimes that is even more important than knowing you achieved what you thought others needed you to do.
Needless to say that aligning your team's workflow to their personalities hangs on your ability to collect honest assessments of each individual's unique work methods. Start by looking at yourself. Dedicate some time to considering these dynamics; it might be helpful to go back and look over the quarter's goals and microgoals and your schedule, to figure out how the two compare. Then, for a while, you will need to consciously implement the new methodology, often against your initial tendency. And then, one day, before too much time has passed, you'll raise your head from your to-do list and discover that it's become second nature.