Is it possible to set priorities so reliably that the situation can be kept under control at all times? Even difficult decisions should be mastered and secured with confidence. This does not necessarily require a lot of effort. This article shows how to achieve maximum benefit in setting priorities with a simple tool. The tool also works in a team and ensures that everyone works in principle according to the same scheme and can thus coordinate better.
If there is more work than time, priorities have to be set. That much is clear. And the number of those who complain about too little work is probably manageable. But how do you set priorities correctly? For one's own daily work, in the team and in product developments?
"Half of what I spend on advertising is wasted, I just don't know which half," said Henry Ford - or maybe not. Because there is no evidence anywhere that the quote really came from Henry Ford.
It's a similar story with the Eisenhower Principle. In 1954, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower quoted a university professor as saying: "I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent ones are not important and the important ones are never urgent." However, it may be doubted whether the principle named after Eisenhower really originated with him.
The Eisenhower Principle
What is the Eisenhower principle? In fact, it is a simple 2 x 2 matrix, hence the alternative name Eisenhower matrix. One axis of the matrix contains the importance divided into the categories important and not important. The other axis contains the categories urgent and not urgent. Topics are assigned to one of the four quadrants. The whole thing will look like this:
At first glance, this matrix does not look very spectacular. However, it results in an interesting change of perspective, so that further consideration of the Eisenhower principle is definitely worthwhile. Which recommendations for action are to be derived concretely from the Eisenhower matrix?
How the Eisenhower Matrix works
The combination important and urgent, i.e. the upper right quadrant of the matrix, should be addressed as soon as possible and by oneself. Issues that are important but not urgent are, according to the Eisenhower principle, to be dealt with by oneself, but at a later, preferably firmly scheduled time. What is not important but urgent should be delegated to competent employees or passed on to suitable colleagues - always assuming that, with staffing usually stretched thin, there is actually someone to whom the task can be passed.
The examination of the fourth quadrant is particularly interesting and revealing. How should tasks that are neither urgent nor important be handled? The Eisenhower Principle recommends simply leaving them, ignoring them, or moving them to the trash.
We humans are social creatures and naturally tend to want to make everyone around us happy. Since every task usually has other people depending on it in some way, it means that with every task we consciously don't do, we will miss out on recognition from others.
So consciously not doing things instead of having to look back later with an increasingly bad conscience on things not done is not an easy step.
Even though the Eisenhower Matrix can provide impulses and food for thought, is it also sufficient for real decision-making processes? In other words, for concrete projects, in product development and generally in our day-to-day work, which is demanding in terms of content? Of course not! The Eisenhower Matrix is a thought experiment that offers a different perspective on our own way of setting priorities.
Is there any reliable method at all that is a real help in setting priorities? And which works in a team, so that everyone works according to the same scheme, at least in principle?
Prioritization with labels
When looking for methodical support in setting priorities, it is worth taking a look at the field of agile project management. In agile approaches, the tasks to be completed are in a so-called backlog. Since one should not and cannot tackle all tasks at the same time, the tasks to be tackled in the next round have to be prioritized (flexibly). This process is a core element of the agile approach.
A technique for prioritization that is common in the agile approach can also be used excellently in general and is by no means limited to the agile topic. The technique is based on labels.
Like many powerful ideas, the idea of labels is very simple. A label consists of a text and a color. In principle, it is just a colored label that can be attached anywhere. There is no specification as to what kind of text a label should contain.
As an introduction to the world of labels, let's take a look at how the Eisenhower matrix can be mapped with labels. In fact, the two labels Important and Emergency are already sufficient for this purpose.
Depending on whether you assign both labels, one of the two, or no label to a topic, you get the 4 desired quadrants of the Eisenhower matrix.
For today's decision-making processes and for setting priorities, two criteria (dimensions) are rarely sufficient.
Anyone who has ever linked Excel files in a complex way knows that this quickly ends in a nightmare. Excel is excellent in the two dimensions columns and rows. As soon as more dimensions are added, it becomes confusing and difficult to control. So using Excel or any other form based on a two-dimensional matrix to make decisions is not very effective and also imposes an unnecessary limitation.
With labels, you don't have to think in such complicated terms. You can simply add as many labels as you like. The number of possible combinations and thus the flexibility grow with the number of labels.
A simple example of what labels might look like for prioritization in the context of product development:
With label sets, two labels are mutually exclusive. Instead of creating two labels named "Prio-1" and "Prio-2", use a double colon in the middle, i.e. "Prio::1" and "Prio::2". The double colon leads to a representation in a kind of pill shape:
This representation is not only easier to read, it also results in a convenience function. Because only one of the two labels can be assigned, never both at the same time. So if you increase the priority from 2 to 1, you don't have to delete the label Prio-2 and then add Prio-1, but adding Prio-1 removes Prio-2 automatically.
Nothing is added to the content by label sets, they are clearer and more comfortable.
How can labels and label sets be used to determine priorities in practice? Let's look at this using the example of a roadmap for product development. The example is about the decision process of which product features to integrate next.
One dimension of the decision criteria is the market analysis, the expectations of the target market:
Another criterion in the example is how large the target market is for whom the feature could mean a purchase decision:
Of course, the effort to develop the new feature also plays a role in the decision process:
If the new product feature results in a reduction in cost for example production costs, support costs or fewer returns/cancellations of purchase, the following label will be added:
For example, a product feature could then have the following labels:
If the product feature has the labels from the example, it would probably get a high priority. Using labels does not directly automate the decision making process in this case.
Decision making with labels
Labels do not directly lead to a decision, but support teams in keeping an overview in a simpler way and in illuminating things from different perspectives. For example, by filtering by certain labels or by hiding certain labels, partial aspects can be viewed and evaluated in isolation.
Labels are therefore a tool that helps in decision-making and makes the assessments of teams visible. Competent decisions can then be made based on the sum of the assessments.
The final assignment of a priority is then just the keystone. How would you go about assigning priority? Feel free to write us your idea at firstname.lastname@example.org->, we welcome your feedback!
Kanban boards are a convenient way to set labels. The process of prioritization is clearly displayed on a board and is done by simply moving it with the mouse.
The columns of Kanban boards are called swimlanes because they resemble the lanes of a swimming pool. For example, if a task is dragged from the swimlane for priority 3 to swimlane one further to the right with the mouse, the label for priority 3 is removed and replaced by priority 2.
In fact, moving a task to another swimlane only removes one label and adds another.
The procedure sounds like a gimmick at first, but in practice it is very efficient and time-saving. Especially when scenarios are run through, changes can be made quickly and the scenarios can be weighed. It also encourages out-of-the-box thinking.
Further possibilities with labels and Kanban boards
Labels and Kanban boards can be used universally and are by no means exclusively suitable for prioritization. For example, workflows can be mapped with labels or teams and responsibilities can be defined. Even if a frequently used label is urgent, great potential is wasted if the use of labels would be limited to this.
Labels can be used on multiple levels in Octaved Flow. For projects in terms of project portfolio management, for work packages, for agile user stories and for tasks, each with label sets and flexibly configurable Kanban boards. This simplifies the prioritization of detailed issues and secures big decisions. The team determines the scheme together, according to which everyone then proceeds. This ensures the best possible exchange of information.