A friend has been on a mission to help a student with a problem. I know about it because they called me for help with a small portion of the issue, and so, to use the intelligence community’s term, I have been read in. The problem is a daunting one; overcoming it for the student will require weeks of emails back and forth, conversations, meetings, and at some point someone will have to make a decision to override a override a policy for the student. They do not want to just solve the issue for the one student, rather they want to have long-established and accepted policies changed for everyone; this will require convincing a company (for whom neither of the individuals involved work) to not only make the decision to change, but to actually implement the change. None of this will happen overnight.
Because I made some headway with my small little portion of the issue, I reached out to my friend today. They were having a very bad day. It seems their spouse’s father, who lives in one European nation and has been visiting another, has taken ill and will likely not survive. My friend, somewhere in the United States, has been trying to coordinate not only with the health care workers and authorities of the visiting country, but also with the entire family. The interested parties, from what I could gather, live in six countries spanning seventeen time zones.
“Mitch, I know that the father is important, but I really have to continue moving forward with my student’s issue. This is driving me crazy!”
Especially when we are dealing with stressful situations, it is easy to lose sight of the importance of prioritizing issues and tasks. I reminded my friend that they are dealing with two very important issues, but if they step back and look at the big picture, there are several ways to decide which should be prioritized.
How Important Is It?
This is an easy question to answer. How important is work versus watching TV? During the day, work is more important. During off-work hours, leisure activities can take precedence. We all have to decide what is important to us.
How Pressing Is It?
A pressing issue is one that requires timely (if not immediate) attention and, when possible, resolution. Of course, it is often hard to remember that there is a difference between important and pressing. How do we determine these?
You own a house. You realize that the foundation is cracked. Obviously, this is an important issue… and will even have a certain level of pressing. However, when you realize that your house is on fire, obviously the more pressing issue is to put the fire out. The important issues can wait, the pressing issues cannot.
How Time-Consuming Is it?
You are studying for an important exam, which you are sitting a week from Tuesday. You have 40 hours of studying to do in order to be confident you will pass the exam. This is important, and certainly pressing, and as Tuesday approaches, it will get more pressing. However, during your study time your partner walks into your office frantically and asks for your opinion on something, and it will take only a few minutes. What they need your opinion on might be more or less important to you (or completely unimportant in some cases), but your partner’s feelings are important. You have to decide if the five minutes away from studying (which can be caught up on) is important enough to show indifference to them.
This is a term we use to describe the easier items on our list. If I have ten tasks that need to be completed during the course of an 8-hour workday, each of which is equally pressing and important, then I might like to get the easier items out of the way earlier. Why? It gives me a sense of accomplishment. I had ten items to do at 9:00am, and now it is 10:30am and I only have six items left to do. I have crossed off 40% of my list, and it is encouraging. That I have six tasks to complete before going home might be daunting, but if they were all achievable in a regular 8-hour day then I should be able to leave the office on time. If something comes up, and I have to leave the office early, I have still crossed four items off my list.
There is another school of thought that says that if you tackle the hard stuff early, then once they are behind you then you can coast to the end of the day. There is nothing wrong with that… However, if I start with the most daunting tasks, I can get to noon and then something comes up – I need to pick up a sick child from school, the power goes out, whatever it might be – and I walk out of the office without having checked anything off my list.
What’s It Worth?
Yes, some things are going to be more important, pressing, time-consuming, and low-hanging fruit… but we have to earn a living, right? Someone has to be able to afford dog food and dog treats and belly rubs and a place for puppy to live and a couch for her to relax on…
<Sorry, my keyboard was momentarily taken over by Princess Sophie.>
Some of us work to live, others live to work. Either way, money is important. If you have a task for a customer that may seem unimportant and isn’t pressing, but that customer is paying for it to get done, then it might be worth moving to the top of the queue, ahead of some other tasks that might be important, but non-lucrative.
As an example: When I was an independent consultant, I had two customers in the same building in Montreal. One was a company owned by a friend, and he negotiated a very hefty discount on my consulting rates. His was a struggling business that he was trying to get off the ground. Knowing we were friends, he would often ask me if I minded waiting a few extra weeks for him to pay his invoices. As I was also struggling to get off the ground, this was difficult, but I was not going to say no to my friend, so there it was. To compensate, he knew that sometimes my customers who paid my full rate needed to be served first. One morning I got a call from both of them, within minutes of each other. Both had experienced the same outages due to an electrical brown-out, and both were unable to work until I evaluated the damage and mitigated their issues. Knowing that the first customer would pay me $75/hour sometime in the next three months, and the second customer would pay me $140/hour in time for me to pay my rent the next month, the decision was an easy one. Yes, my friend’s systems were down a few hours longer than they needed to be. Yes, outage meant lost productivity and revenue. He was not happy about having to wait those 3-4 extra hours, but he certainly understood, and did not complain about it.
What should not be a factor?
Let’s be honest: we have customers we like better than others; even if we like the people the same, we have customers we prefer to spend time at over others. Back in those early years, I had one customer that was a photography studio, that had gorgeous models walking around in skimpy outfits and everyone was always happy and smiling and it was a real party atmosphere. I had another customer that was a church… no, really! I would have loved to be able to spend all of my time taking care of the models, but you cannot do business that way. If you have two customers who on paper are the same, who both call you with an equally important (or equally unimportant) issue at exactly the same time, then you can flip a coin. If the boring customer calls you before the exciting customer, then you have to prioritize the boring customer… even if the photographer says that today they are doing a bikini shoot for a beer commercial where everyone is being given a Cuban cigar… and even if the boring customer tells you that it is not a rush.
I was in a presentation given by a corporate vice-president of Microsoft some fifteen years ago in which he said something I have not forgotten to this day. He said: “Microsoft does not love all of its partners equally.” He went on to explain that partners who brought in more revenue were treated differently than those who brought in less revenue. That makes sense, doesn’t it? You are well within your rights to favour customers who pay more over customers who pay less… but that should be where it ends. Do not prioritize tasks based on prejudices or preferences.
Drop Everything And Run!
I have tried to follow these guidelines for the last eighteen years, since I started consulting. With that said, near the beginning of my consulting career I established what I called a DEAR call… Drop Everything And Run. A customer could call me, any hour of the day or night, and tell me they needed a DEAR Call, and I would literally stop what I was doing and drive to their offices. I once had to leave a Montreal Canadiens hockey game in the middle of the first period because of one of these, and I recall walking out on at least three dates with my fiancé/wife/ex-wife (all the same person) because of them.
The conditions were simple:
A) It had to be a clearly defined issue.
B) The customer had to be ready and waiting for me.
C) The rate was double my full hourly billing rate – not the customer’s discounted rate.
D) It was a minimum 2-hour visit. If the problem took six hours to resolve then they would pay the six hours, but if the problem was resolved in 5-minutes they still had to pay the two hours.
E) Once the clearly defines issue was resolved, counting stopped. I was free to leave (and bill for the 2 hours +).
F) If the customer asked me to stay beyond that time, as long as I had the availability I would… but the billing started fresh (so if I resolved the issue in five minutes, I would bill that as two hours, and start a new bill) but at the full rate, which would not change as long as I was on the premises.
DEAR Calls were few and far between; they were meant to be. I did not establish these policies as a money grab, rather as a way to make sure my customers did not abuse it. I was trying to establish my reputation, and no matter how good you may be, it is unlikely that walking out on a customer in the middle of a meeting will endear you to them. While you are wondering, this was not a contributing factor to my first divorce.
Common Sense Should Prevail
While the current wisdom is that common sense is not very common it should be clear to most of us that the fire will trump the cracked foundation, the customer who pays more and on-time will be prioritized over the customer who pays less and late, and the easy five-minute task will be completed ahead of the harder four-hour project. Sometimes things will interfere, and you will use your judgement as to what needs to be done first… but the most important part of the decision tree is taking a deep breath and analyzing the situation, rather than just jumping in where it might be wrong. I’ve done that, and it seldom works out to my advantage.
There are myriad factors to keep in mind when prioritizing tasks. One does not need to be a Certified Project Manager to know that. Whether you realize it or not, most of us make these choices every hour of every day, in our work, school, and personal lives. Taking a few minutes to think about what factors we use to weigh our choices and decisions might help you every day… and by doing it every day, when a real life-or-death situation comes up, you will have the skills required to make those decisions without panicking.