The process and math behind prioritization
You start each day with a decision, even on your days off. Every single day you must choose: what will I do first? An assortment of obvious options, your routines, probably spring to mind. And while you might not consider something like brushing your teeth a decision, it’s the first of many choices you’ll face that day.
So what do you do next? And after that? As you begin your day, the options become less obvious, and require you to think, process, and introspect. What do you want to do next? It’s no wonder that time management experts devise so many methods to help people choose their next move: Eat the frog, chunking tasks, time boxing, the Eisenhower Decision Matrix, and others.
And while these frameworks can (and do) help you use your time efficiently, the key to knowing exactly what to do, at all times, lies in a relatively straightforward process. It’s something talked about so much, that it can be easy to forget that this process is in fact a process; it’s one that requires talent, skill, and effort to execute. And that is prioritization.
What does it mean to prioritize? The word itself comes from the Latin word, prioritas, which means “before.” Throughout history, precedence in time has entailed precedence in importance: The ruling magistrates of medieval Florence were known as Priors. In biological nomenclature, the first scientific name assigned to life forms trumps names assigned later. Ancient philosophers assumed a prime, or first, mover was the explanation and driving force behind all action, ideas, and life.
With the invention of work, our world has become even more complex, and more variables mean more paths to choose between. Even the concept of multiple priorities is a modern concept; the word was largely used in the singular form before the 1950s. So what is the singular priority? What do you do next?
Mission → Objectives → Prioritization
When you go into work, there are an infinite number of tasks you could do. Without a system, it’s easy to start with the work that’s easiest, or most urgent, or most recently assigned to you.
But to maximize the value of your output today, your default should be those tasks which serve the highest purpose. In fact, less important work may never deserve to be prioritized, no matter how “urgent.”
Most people waste most of their time, especially in business.
It means you have to ask the question: what is your purpose? Before you can start to prioritize you need to really know what your mission is, use that to determine top-level objectives, and then work your way down to what that means for your to-do list today.
Adopting a macro view helps clarify what to work on, and when. It shows that most projects aren’t worth pursuing at all, and illuminates which other seemingly inconsequential tasks are critical for your mission. As Sam Altman puts it, “Most people waste most of their time, especially in business.”
At Asana, we refer to our mission to make our objectives clear, which in turn propagates actionable tasks for all our teams. Every year we run a company-wide process to establish exactly what we want to accomplish over a year. Here’s how we do it.
Get specific. Imagine what your team looks like in one year. What does that look like? Look back from a vantage point a year out and consider every aspect of your company. Headcount, product features, milestones; think about the details.
Consider the true cost. Estimate in practical terms how much time and how many resources it will take to realize that vision.
Scope your vision. Determine what’s realistic for just one year. Consider where “costs exceed available resources.” How are your ambitions are greater than what your team can handle today?
Codify your vision. We generate a set of clearly actionable top-level objectives every year. For example, here are some sample objectives:
- X% increase in user growth
- Grow the team with X engineers and Y operations hires
- Increase revenue by X%
Scoping helps you define the measurable goals that, once accomplished, get you closer to achieving your mission.
These goals and objectives are a guiding principle for teams as they decide what to do day-to-day. They serve to answer the question: “Why am I doing this?” If a task or project isn’t a step toward completing a top-level objective, it isn’t a priority and it isn’t worth doing.
Honing your vision
How do you actually choose the vision for the year (or week, or month) in the first place?
Ideally, it happens in the context of a larger conversation about your team’s purpose and their highest-level mission. But those tend to be very broad, with many possible paths forward. How do you narrow down which piece of the puzzle you’re going to tackle in the short-term?
If a task or project isn’t a step toward completing a top-level objective, it isn’t a priority and it isn’t worth doing.
In deciding our roadmap, PM Jackie Bavaro started collecting as much information as possible about our customers’ desires and what will serve them. She asked the sales team, “What top requirements are preventing customers from expanding their usage?” She asked Customer Success, “What are the obstacles preventing customers from getting the most value from the product?” She asked our user research team, “What are the things blocking people in their first moments with Asana?” She also tackled provocative questions like, “What would it take to make the product twice as useful as it is today?”
Taking a holistic view of the entire breadth of problems Asana could possibly encounter is critical in informing our priorities.
Given that there’s an infinite number of things you could work on, it’s worth explicitly assessing where you’ll get the most bang for your buck. So at Asana, we go through potential projects to balance the expected “bang” against the expected “buck.”
For large projects, you’re likely going to be guessing. But swagging is still better than not thinking about it at all. Our process involves a spreadsheet with three columns: project name, expected value (bang), and expected cost (buck). We then compute a fourth column with the ratio of “bang” to “buck,” to get an imperfect but useful sense of what’s worth pursuing.
EV (bang) / EV (buck) = Bang To Buck Ratio
For value, we consider questions like: by what percentage would this improve our core success metrics? Could this open up whole new markets? Is this a high-leverage opportunity given our market position?
For cost, we’ll calculate a rough number of person-months expected to complete, taking into account all the different departments involved.
It’s important to factor in risk, and this is achieved with honest reflection. If you estimate a project will take three person-months, but you honestly know that similar projects can take up to a year, revise your expected cost. You can do the same for value. Take, for example, a project that is high risk and high reward. It’s OK to be optimistic as long as you build that into your equation. Multiply your (low) probability of success with the (high) reward of success, to get the most accurate expected value of that endeavor.
This is how we prioritize at Asana. There are a lot of paths to choose, so being honest and clear about what we are trying to achieve in the long-term is what helps us get things done in the short-term. Only by knowing what to do next, and what to do after that, can we keep heading in the right direction.
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