Editor: Project manager and writer Scott Berkun knows how to get things done when you’ve got a team of people, a to-do list, and a deadline. Today he offers an excerpt from the updated edition of his best-selling book The Art of Project Management (our review), entitled Making Things Happen.
Prioritisation is always more emotional than intellectual, despite what people say. Just like dieting to lose weight or budgeting to save money, eliminating things you want, but don’t need, requires being disciplined, committed, and focused. Saying “exercise is important” is one thing, but ranking it against other important things is entirely different. Many people chicken out of this process. They hedge, delay and deny the tough choices, and the result is that they set up projects to fail. No tough choices means no progress. In the abstract, the word important means nothing.
The easiest way to make a goal meaningful is to use ordered lists and a high priority one bar. These two simple tools force you to make tough decisions early. An ordered list simply means putting your goals in priority order, most important at the top, least important at the bottom. Divide that list in half: the top are things you must do, or die (Priority 1). The rest are things you hope to do, but can live without (Priority 2). Make your priority 1 list as small as possible: set a high bar. The smaller your list of must do’s, the easier they are to achieve. You will face waves of conflicting emotions as you decide what is truly important, but once you settle on priorities the hard decisions will be behind you.
Doing the tough decision making early creates clarity, and clarity is the true way to make things happen on projects. No-bullshit tools like ordered lists reinforce commitments and make them public. Everyone can show up to work with a strong sense of what he is doing, why he’s doing it, and how it relates to what others are doing. When the inevitable moments of doubt arise and you or your team question the plans, you want to be ready. If people can easily look back to a simple set of ordered goals, it enables simple, direct and clear questions. Even if there are disagreements, the clarity of the goals makes those debates productive and positive.
Priorities are power
Have you ever been in a tough argument that you thought would never end? Perhaps half your team felt strongly for adding more features, and the other half felt strongly for increasing quality. But then the smart team leader hero dude walks in, asks some questions, divides the discussion in a new way, and quickly gets everyone to agree. It’s happened to me many times. When I was younger, I chalked this up to brilliance: somehow the leader was just smarter than the rest of the room. But as I paid more attention I realised it was about having rock solid priorities. They had an ordered list in their heads for what is most important and were able to share it with others when necessary. Good priorities are power. They eliminate secondary distractions from the discussion, making it easier to focus on what matters.
If you have priorities in place you can always ask questions in any discussion that reframe the argument. This can work when working alone or with others. When there is uncertainty or disagreement, reframe the discussion around the priorities using questions like these.
- What problem are we trying to solve?
- Does this problem relate to our top goals or is it a distraction?
- Is this problem important enough to warrant changing our priorities?
- What is the simplest way to resolve this that will allow us to meet out goals?
- If we’re struggling to meet our goals, which goal can we drop down to Priority 2?
Things happen when you say No
One effect of having priorities is how often you have to say no. It’s one of the smallest words in the English language, yet many people have trouble saying it. The problem is that if you can’t say no, you can’t have priorities. The universe is a large place, but your priority one list should be very small. That small list means there are thousands of good ideas that must be denied to focus your energy on the ones you’ve chosen to pursue. If you continually say yes to ideas that do not match your priorities, you are saying yes to failure. If you want to change your priorities, that’s one thing, but if you are constantly changing them then they were never priorities at all. You did not think deeply enough about them if, emotionally, they are easy to change every few hours. So a fundamental law is this: if you can’t say no, if you can’t protect your priorities, you can’t make things happen.
Excerpt copyright © 2008 Scott Berkun. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Berkun’s no-nonsense, common sense advice is a good read whether or not your business card title reads “Project Manager.” If you’ve got a crazy-making manager who can’t keep your team on track? Buy a copy of this book leave it on his or her desk.