“What should the team tackle first?”
It’s a loaded question with a supposedly obvious answer.
“Prioritize what’s important.”
But “important” is such a catch-all term that it’s useless in actual practice. Everything is important to someone in an organization. And when everything is important, nothing is.
When you’re setting team priorities, you have to take multiple factors into account. Does it impact other people? What is it for? Who is it for? When it is due?
All of these considerations are balanced against each other to determine the final ranking of team priorities. Some managers have an innate sense of this and can easily pick out the critical items. The rest of us, however, need a bit of help.
Below I’ve listed the different factors involved in prioritizing a team’s task list and how much weight it should add to your scale.
It’s easy to get caught in the minutiae of a task and in the urgency of a deadline, but as managers you’re supposed to remember the larger view.
Ask the big questions. Is this task part of a project that will drive the business forward? Or is it a project with little actual impact? Does this project’s goals align with the overall business strategy? Or is it an outlier?
Generally, you will want to prioritize tasks that fulfill corporate objectives. Also, projects that have a tangible and measurable goal will demonstrate marketing’s value to the rest of the company, and are worth pursuing ahead of loosey-goosey, flavor-of-the-month projects.
Of course, a lot also depends on your team’s actual purpose within the organization. If you’re the equivalent of a marketing service desk, fulfilling requests for business cards and ecommerce site changes, then the meaty strategic stuff is probably going to be handled by a different group. Don’t stray from your team’s actual function until you get permission from upper management.
I hate setting priorities based on urgency. If I do, then it either means that a) something in my plan went awry, or b) someone dumped a task onto my pile.
The worst thing about it is that urgency is often manufactured or arbitrary. How many times have we moved heaven and earth to meet a deadline, only for the other person to take their sweet time responding?
The bitter truth is that urgency can be gamed.
Everyone knows this, deep down. That’s how a co-worker can convince you to pause your work on tomorrow’s pitch deck and email them the latest brochure just so you can get rid of them. It’s false pressure to get you to comply.
A skilled manager will know the difference between true urgency and manufactured urgency. True urgency is when there are tangible and real consequences to missing a deadline (e.g. missing a product launch date). In these cases, even a day’s delay can affect the project’s critical path and make life more horrible for other people down the line.
Weight: 2/5 (manufactured urgency), 4/5 (true urgency)
Which brings us to the next factor: dependencies.
Are people waiting on you to finish a particular task before they can do their jobs? That’s called a dependency.
Dependencies also have deadlines, but they are different from manufactured urgency in that any delay on your part will have a domino effect that impacts the entire plan.
Let’s say you have a simple task–order a demo unit from the warehouse. Your photographer is going to shoot photos, which the graphic designer will put on the packaging, which will have to ship in time for Black Friday.
Instead of ordering the demo unit, however, you decide to spend the morning researching keywords. Keywords are important and valuable, but not the most urgent thing right now. The warehouse misses the courier and the photographer doesn’t get the demo unit for another week. The graphic designer is forced to use older photos and the product ships with the wrong item on the box.
There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. And probably a reprimand mixed in somewhere.
Dependencies should absolutely be one of your top considerations when setting priorities. Use a Gantt chart to visualize your project plan and see how your team’s individual responsibilities affect other parts of the project.
Weight rating: 5/5
If you read the section title and said to yourself, “I’m totally professional. I don’t prioritize based on personal preference,” then you are a liar.
A person will always set loathsome tasks at a lower priority, even if they know they’re important. Granted, you may still do that hated task first, but only if you can’t justify doing something else.
Keep this in mind any time you assign unpopular tasks to your team. There’s a chance that person will either wait until the very last moment to do it (forcing you to follow up several times) or speed through the task in an effort to “get it over with quickly” (forcing you to check their work).
Being aware of the problem will help you plan around their expected behavior. It will also help you course-correct when you fall into this tendency yourself (and you will, because we’re all human).
Weight: 1/5 (but plan around it anyway)
The Final Formula
I don’t expect you to actually produce an actual formula out of what I mentioned above (although the Excel geeks among you are welcome to try).
Each business will value things differently based on their corporate culture and current situation.
But be aware of the different elements and considerations when you set team priorities, so that you can both increase your team’s productivity and provide maximum value to your organization.