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5 Rules for Setting Action List Priorities

There are as many ways to run a to do list as there are days in the month, probably more! The other day I was having a coaching session with a new leader in a business and they were sharing their to do list set by their boss with me.

I found it quite an eye opener, there were a great many things, 10 in total with an A against them inferring these were the priority, then 5 B's, 6 C's 2D' & 1E!

When prompted on why he had accepted these priorities and how they helped him, he responded: "Well they kind of help, if I knock of the A's then I'm heading the right direction, but then the A's from the Boss aren't everyone else's A's sometimes so I tend to try and shuffle a bit to keep those people happy. The big issue really comes is if I pick something that's an A but at the bottom of the list rather than the top.. that tends to be less than ideal in the bosses eyes".. to say he had his work cut out for him is an understatement and the issue was as much with his boss as him, his boss for not really setting priority and him for accepting the list in the 1st place.

The reality is there are a few things here we can improve on with some rules around how the prioritising of things is done.

First, an agreement on the term Priority:

The Oxford English Dictionary lists Priority as:

"A thing that is regarded as more important than others"

The key point here is it is a singular description, it is not these things are more important, it is A Thing… therefore a priority list should be 1 thing, then another then another i.e. 1. Then 2. Then 3.


So here are my rules for a to do or priority list or whatever you want to call it:

Rule one is: Each item must be its own whole number,

There are no 3.1's, 3a', 3b, 3c etc this can give the impression that everything linked with 3 has the same priority, it can also lead to the believe that action 3 is a set time which may or may not be equal or greater than 3a + 3b + 3c etc. It is also an out for the person setting the priority by saying these things are roughly the same or I'm not sure so we'll make them all 3. It also allows for wiggle room in saying here are 5 things on the priority list when in fact it's 9 things.

Rule two is: There should be 1 single agreed numbering convention within the company,

At the very least within one person work schedule, it's either 1,2,3 or A,B,C it doesn't matter which, but pick one and stick to it this avoids the debate on that A being more important than that 1 and so forth, the preference is for numbers 1 – XXX it give you more scope rather than just 26.. but then if you have 26 things on a list you may have other issues.

Rule three is: Multiple inputs to the to do list must follow rule one, the owner of the list is responsible to get these things in order

What we mean here is when 2 or more people are providing input to the list the owner of the list needs to add things to the list in the priority, where there are clashes i.e. 2 priority 1's the list owner must clarify with both people which one is truly more important. The driver for this would normally be linked to the delivery date.

Rule four is: The owner of the to do list is responsible for running the list

What we mean here is where someone wants to break the rules, the owner of the list must step in and say, sorry I need it to work like this because….. it should be valid reasons such as it helps me keep track, it's simpler.. etc They have to follow the list, track where they are up to .

Rule five is: Everything on the list needs a due date & time estimate

For a list to be effective for everyone it requires every action to have a due date & an estimation of how long the action will take. This helps decision making on prioritisation and changing priorities where appropriate, for example, something may have a due date 3 weeks away & so may be considered a low priority, however it may have a delay in the processing of 2 weeks for example stencil orders, - the further out these are the cheaper they are so you may prioritise these above something that is due in 2 weeks' time.

Adding the duration will also help to reduce fire fighting over time, some people have duration split into 2 sections, actual work and waiting time to indicate that it is only say 8hrs work but the results will take 2 weeks to get here again thinking in terms of stencils, it would take say 4hrs to do the work but 2 – 3 weeks for delivery, total lapsed time is 3 weeks but actual work content may only be 8hrs.

These 5 rules are simple but make for a very powerful and well controlled to do list:

  1. Each item must be its own whole number
  2. There should be 1 single agreed numbering convention within the company,
  3. Multiple inputs to the to do list must follow rule one, the owner of the list is responsible to get these things in order
  4. The owner of the to do list is responsible for running the list
  5. Everything on the list needs a due date & time estimate


If you need any support in developing or improving your current or future leaders then click here to make an appointment and find out how we can help you Make Things, Better  

You can also call John on 0211649739 to set up a meeting

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Tuesday, 19 March 2019

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