Changing Priorities

I was recently asked to drop everything and write up a plan for something. A couple of hours later, I had a reasonably well detailed about what needed to be done. I needed a time estimate for this task—an estimate I wasn't exactly qualified to make. I send out the plan for review. No response. I sent it out again asking for a response. I get a time estimate. The person who had asked me to do this task and told me how critical it was has yet to respond. So much for this task being critical. Makes me feel like I wasted my time.

One thing I've learned to deal with as a support engineer is interrupts. If you think about it, everything a support engineer does is interrupt-driven. Stuff breaks, customers call support, it's a critical customer, all hands on deck, etc. This is part of the job. However, at a certain point, those interrupts need to be prioritized. What order do you address these tasks in? In my job, at least, I've gotten pretty good at assessing what needs to be done in what order. I am not always perfect, and certainly within my life, I could do a better job prioritizing what I need to do. Even so, there are times when I clearly need help.

At my day job, my management generally has a good overall view and generally do a fantastic job helping to keep all these competing priorities in check. If I come to them and ask "which thing do I do first" I usually get a clear answer. I don't always because, let's face it, sometimes that kind of judgement call is tough to make, but then at least my management and I agree on what the priority is and we move forward. That doesn't mean the situation won't get re-evaluated in a few days or even a few hours, but at least there is agreement. Once we agree, the priority generally doesn't change until the critical situation has de-escalated.

If you're going to be in charge, you have to be able to prioritize. Ten years ago when I was a bit less experienced, I worked ever-so-briefly at the Giant Lizard. My manager was telling my team how it was our responsibility to monitor the support queue and make sure we initially respond to our customers within four hours. This was non-negotiable and must be done. Okay, I understood that. I asked avery critical question: if there are two cases in the queue that area bout to hit the SLA, but I can only respond to one of them, which do I choose? His answer: both of them. I persisted: I have five minutes left until both cases hit the SLA. There is no way I can possibly respond intelligently to both cases in this period of time. How do I choose? He still said: both. A real manager would have given some guidelines for choosing which one, or would have understood the situation and given a standard "use your best judgement, do the best you can" answer.

Not only must you be able to prioritize, you need to be consistent in how things are prioritized. What do I mean by consistent? I mean that priorities are set according to a stable set of guidelines that generally don't change. Does that mean priorities won't change? Of course not, they will change anyway. That's because there are plenty of factors outside of your direct control. You never know when a "more important customer" will call and demand that you fix a bug they've found. However, everyone involved will understand why the priorities have changed because there are guidelines in place.

In another example from my day job, I feel that the product I am working on right now is going in a positive direction. Customer issues are getting addressed in a reasonable fashion. Everyone is fairly clear what the expectations are, clear on how things are prioritized, and generally speaking, the prioritization remains stable. Things are progressing extremely well.

I think another thing that goes along with prioritization is the point I brought up yesterday about being honest with yourself. Part of that "honesty" is recognizing your limitations as well as those of the members in your team. Prioritizing your team to do a task they are clearly not qualified to do is not a good use of time, unless of course, it is training within that area. Time is another limitation you must work with. Asking your team members to work 16 hours a day 7 days a week is quite simply unrealistic. However, having clear, consistent, stable priorities allows you to get the things you need to get done right now and not worry so much about the stuff that doesn't get done.