Processing Competing Priorities

Andrew Schwabe

The Problem

If you are not there yet, the time is coming. You may be getting close, the squeeze is starting. If you are there you feel it every day. What is it? Competition for your work time. It feels like there is never enough time in the day to get the things done that need your attention. This is prevalent from startup to enterprise, there are people (internal or external) that want all the time they can get from you to assist with a problem.

While this experience is different for everyone, the feelings you have toward this competition will also vary. In my experience, I have come across people who have hated the lack of time to do "their" work. Enough so, that they remove themselves from the organization. Finding a position where they are "the new guy" so they can be under the radar. Have less exposure to the time thieves. Others I have come across love the opportunity to be helpful. They do not mind having to do their "day job" at night or early in the morning when there are no distractions in the office (virtual or physical).

Then there is everyone in the middle group. That is where I reside. I want to be helpful, but I know I have other commitments to attend, so our customers remain happy with our service. So how does one play in this middle group, swaying back and forth from loving the distraction to hating the position?

Techniques for Playing the Middle

There is no prescription for handling this increase in pressure, you will have to find out what works for you. Here are some ways the Deglutino team finds helpful.

Be forward with someone when you have other commitments. If they interrupt to ask a question, it is okay to say "Hey, I need to wrap this up before taking on something new. Can this wait an hour?". Nine times out of ten the question they have can wait. In that one time where assistance is needed at this moment, attempt to defer this to another team member who has fewer commitments for today. After all, we are a team, it is reasonable to share responsibility.

How about those meetings that hang on and on, ceasing to wrap up even if it's 20 min after the scheduled end time? Is the content valuable? No? Politely excuse yourself, there are more important things to do than sit there and entertain nonsense. Have a feeling this meeting will be running long before it even starts, state that you have to leave at the end of the planned time to continue working on competing priorities. Another option is to control your calendar by blocking off time. Indicating to others that is your time to satisfy the commitments of your role.

On SCRUM teams it's common to have a daily standup. During your time to update what is happening is a great time to communicate the commitment and that you will need some focused time to complete the work. Another opportunity would be to ask for some help on the activity. Maybe even delegate it to another team member.

The final bit of advice is to just stop working on what is not a value add activity. There are certain tasks you will have to complete no matter what. Stopping those tasks of little value to the team or the customer has the potential to cause issues elsewhere in the organization. So you will want to communicate what you are stopping and why you are stopping it with the appropriate parties. Perhaps you are just not seeing the value in the activity. Perhaps it is just overhead processing. While this does have to happen from time to time, this is the last resort. Remember we are all one team, we will succeed together or we fail together.

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