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You may skip to the last paragraph for condensed question, but read back for details.

I have a somewhat of a consistent issue I deal with at the workplace. The issue is lack of clearly defined priorities. It is whomever vocalizes, complains, makes a case the loudest, wins.

So far things have been "alright" and did not blow up, thanks to relaxed work culture and things like lack of micro-management (which is good). So there is not a big problem in that sense. But it is an issue that I would like to manage better nevertheless.

I am in essence working onsite at a client's office, and I have a manager who is part of my team but sits in another office area. My customers usually come from different departments and request vastly different things that are to be done. Because they are from different places, I don't always define priority very well. Sales might come and say we need something now, and when I say I'm working for something on Engineering they say drop that task from Engineering and work on Sales. Sales is important I may do as they suggest. Later, Engineering says why are you working on Sales, What Sales asked is not as important as what we have. That's where I facepalm.

At a big meeting today I asked.. I am not always clear on priorities, and big bosses said ... jokingly ... everything is top priority and is to be done next. And indeed, any one task that I work on, will ease someone's life a little bit.

I am sure that if I sat down with them and expressed the need for the need for priority, I will get something. But then I also understand that everybody wants things done and have them done yesterday, and there is only one me working on that specific area that people request having work done. Decision to hire more people so far has not passed, nor it may be an issue, so it's just me so far.

I am in a place where I find that I may need to define certain office culture of getting things done because so far this have not been very clearly defined. And that includes not defining priorities. Right now I kind of pick what I work on based on implicit direct manager approval (he is in a meeting when big task A gets dispensed and agreed upon), and work on little things as they come up.

There needs to be more transparency. We have a ticketing system that I have not been using or using sporadically. Most people just come and 'bug me' at my office and bypass the ticketing system. I can certainly create tickets myself when starting to work on a particular task, if that will help.

I mean I can start being "the change in the company", maybe go as far as implement agile workstream, but how far do I go, where do I start. I'm not in a managerial position so I don't want to suddenly start saying "go that way", and I don't want to try to manipulate management from below either. Or maybe that's not the right thing to do anyways.

Maybe I might start with using email more, as getting everyone into a meting may be difficult every time. But make my goal is to be making things more transparent, like identify key stakeholders and then email out to all "hey I am working on Sales today and for the next 2 weeks", if you don't like that, say something now, before I lock it in. But then anyway...

I am looking for a systemic approach to managing priorities and tasks in a currently relaxed work culture when there are plenty of tasks big and small to work on, and they are all important and all to be done next.

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    Pick the one which looks like most fun to work on. Do that task. Repeat. – Philip Kendall Jan 8 '15 at 18:53
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    @PhilipKendall, I hope you are joking because that is possibly the worst advice I have ever seen. – HLGEM Jan 8 '15 at 19:13
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    @HLGEM, it's a horrible way of prioritizing from a productivity standpoint, sure. But if you can't get any guidance from higher-ups, all the tasks appear to be of similar importance, and no matter what you work on, someone will be annoyed, you might just as well do the task that looks interesting as pick one at random. – Kelly Tessena Keck Jan 8 '15 at 19:17
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    I'd say if sales claim they are higher priority than engineering, you call engineering right while sales is at your desk and let them fight it out. – gnasher729 Jan 8 '15 at 20:56
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    @HLGEM why is that bad advice? It's an effective way to make people realize that they do need to articulate their priorities, and that saying "everything is top priority" actually means that nothing is top priority. I've followed that course of action myself and it has worked well. – Carson63000 Jan 8 '15 at 23:48
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You have hit on the one of the biggest reasons why most realxed work cultures don't actually function very well over time (not that they can't be fun which is overrated as a workplace ideal). You need more process than you have. Everything is not number 1 priority. Where you are getting into trouble is three fold. You don't know what the priorites should be, no one is willing to set them and, worst of all, you don't inform people when you have moved their task down in your priorities. Right now everyone considers you to be a problem. YOu are trying to make everyone happy by changing to what they want and are making no one happy. You are also taking far longer to do things than it should take because changing gears slows down the work. This is why you need process not a relaxed workplace where supervisors don't supervise.

First I would suggest making use of the ticketing system you already have. If it isn't in the tracking system, you don't work on it period. When they come to your desk, ask them to enter a request in the ticketing system. This will free you up from them coming to your desk and interupting you to beg for you to do something different. About half those urgent priorities will probably go away if they have to spend 15 minutes entering them into a system.

This will give you a way to easily produce a list of what you are asked to do and then use it to show people what is ahead of them. If everything is number 1 then the only sane thing to do is to work on requests in the order in which they were received.

Personally I don't buy that everything is number 1 and when I have had people try this nonsense on me in the past, I take the whole list to my boss, daily if need be, and let him decide what order to work them in. This is the JOB of any competent boss. It is not your job.

To save him some time, you can go over the general types of requests you get and he can decide which things would always need to be moved to the number 1 priority. For instance where I work, I have a set of priorities but production database issues that are preventing people from working will 100% of the time become my number 1 priority if they happen. I have certain clients whose requests almost always take precedence as well. For instance we recently had a client who's contract was coming up and they had the new contract out for RFP. Anything they asked for was first priority even if it seemed minor because we wanted them to be happy with us when they made the stay or go decision.

If your boss chooses to remain incompetent and disconnected, then you will need to get the stakeholders to set priorities. In this case, the rule is you continue to work on whatever you were working on at the time of the request as your number 1 priority and the person doing the requesting gets the list of what is ahead of him and he gets the owner of everything ahead of him to sign off in writing on moving his priority up. I assure you this will make your boss learn to do his job very quickly. Make sure to communicate to the everyone how much it will delay anytime the priority changes. (Another advantage of using a tracking system properly is they can often show the new expected due date and possibly even be set up to automatically notify the task owner if the due date changes.)

  • thanks! A comment on ticketing system. Our culture is lacking in this regard. Namely, we currently have 165 open tickets, 30 of which are at high priority. Only 18 of these were filed in year 2014. The rest go back to year 2010, and may no longer be relevant at all. When I finish work on tickets, I typically do not close them, as I presume the asker or QA should do this, if work has been done to their satisfaction. We don't have QA and tickets just remain lingering in the system. We have the system, yes, but process to use it is lacking and questions remain on how to use it most effectively. – dennismv Jan 8 '15 at 20:51
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    in other ways, restore trust in ticketing system, and teach people to use it again and learn to use it myself. – dennismv Jan 8 '15 at 21:31
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    You do dev work and have no QA? You have bigger problems than the priorities. – HLGEM Jan 8 '15 at 21:39
  • our QA is Sales, Engineering, etc – dennismv Jan 8 '15 at 21:46
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    @dennismv If you have lots of open tickets in the system close them out. If they still need to be open assign them to the appropriate group and get them off your desk (this will clean up the pile "on your desk"). Next set up a priority system your self (if your boss wont help you) and send any complaints his way. Overall push the ticketing system, if any thing else it can show you are working hard for your money and when sales wonders what is taking so long you have documentation to CYA. – RubberChickenLeader Jan 8 '15 at 22:04
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Short answer: Someone has to set the priorities. I don't know who that is in your company, but there has to be someone with the authority to say, "this task from sales is higher priority than this task from engineering".

I've been in the position you describe many times. I always simply go to someone whom I believe has the authority, my boss or the head of the department or whomever, and ask them what the priorities are for this particular set of tasks.

It may be that you are in an organization where no one will give you a straight answer to the question. Maybe there is no one who is high enough in the organization to tell sales that they come in second to engineering, and who is also close enough to you that you can talk to him. That's a bad organization structure, but I've been in places where it happens: The only one who has the authority to make this decision is the president of the company, and he's 20 levels above any of you and if you try to call him all you'll get is the receptionist for his assistant's secretary who will tell you he's too busy for this trivial issue. Or, the people in authority may say that all these tasks are priority one and all must be completed in some totally unreasonable amount of time.

If that's the case, you have basically two choices. (a) Quit and get another job. Probably extreme, but it all depends on how much pressure is being put on you and how unpleasant people are making your day. (b) Invent priorities yourself. You look at what sales wants and what engineering wants and decide which YOU think is more important. Then if the other folks complain, tell them sorry but, etc. If they complain to hire ups and the hire ups come down on you, explain the situation to them, and politely say that if they don't think your priorities are correct, please tell you what your priorities should be. At that point either someone above you makes the decision, taking the monkey off your back, or people yell and scream and make your life miserable, at which point you're back to option (a). Or everybody passes the buck and you continue to set your own priorities.

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I'll make this one extremely easy for you.

If Sales says they have a high priority item then that's your top priority. If Engineering comes in and says their stuff needs to be worked on first, have them talk to your boss.

Sales people ask for things for two reasons: Either they are trying to close a deal or they are trying to make sure a client is happy. At the end of the day both of those are critical items to an organization and everything else is just detail.

In every company I've worked with, the person who consistently made sales happy was noticed. If you ask a CEO what the single most important job title was in their organization it would be "sales". Without it, you don't eat and bonuses never materialize. Also Sales people will use your name in front of those that matter. Quite frankly the only requests I'd put above their's would be ones from the CEO.

Engineers, well, they grumble a lot no matter what and seem to forget those that helped them along the way. Which makes it trivial to decide the group to consistently side line.

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    Right, because doing what's best for your career is always more important than doing what is best for the company and your team. You can always find another company to work for before the infrastructure crumbles because everyone ignored the boring stuff that wasn't visible until it failed. – ColleenV parted ways Jan 8 '15 at 23:12
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    Yes, but why would your boss side with Engineering when obviously the best thing to do for his career would be to prioritize Sales? And if he punts it up to his boss? It's probably good advice to be aware of the politics though. It's just too cynical for my nature. I put people in a queue as I received requests regardless of whether they were sales or engineering and let them negotiate with my boss to get moved closer to the top. I don't have ambitions to move out of the technical arena though. – ColleenV parted ways Jan 8 '15 at 23:25
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    @Colleen:You can prioritize whatever way you choose, but don't be one of those people who refuse to listen to others when they tell them how to get better recognition and pay raises and then complain later when you find out you have fallen way behind the curve. – Dunk Jan 8 '15 at 23:50
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    @Dunk I don't have any trouble getting recognized for my work. It helps that I'm very good at what I do and have excellent communication and interpersonal skills. I'm content to stay out of the upper echelons though where such politicking is necessary. I prefer more tangible work. Now that I'm more senior, I don't have the issues with prioritization that I had during my "queue" days. I found work in a company that has a sane process where the business analysts and the engineering teams work together instead of against each other. (Crazy, I know, but it actually exists!) – ColleenV parted ways Jan 9 '15 at 0:07
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    Attaboys are great Colleen, but true recognition shows up in your paycheck. If you make more than people with similar positions in your company then you are doing something right. If you aren't and choose not to follow the easiest paths to ensure you are getting well paid then don't blame it on anything other (which most people do) than because you aren't willing to play the game. – Dunk Jan 9 '15 at 19:23
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Another way of viewing this is that if your company and manager feel comfortable letting you talk directly to other teams and setting priorities, there is an opening here to management or team lead.

If you don't want to manage people, see all of the above answers, but if it's something that might interest you...

  • Start publicly documenting everything you work on week to week--including support and managerial tasks. The idea is to document how your time is being spent and to show how an additional employee could help with whatever portion of that work. You may be shocked at how much time you're spending doing managerial tasks.

  • If necessary, push back, politely but firmly. People won't acknowledge there's a problem until a few things become delayed (or quality of work suffers). Tell them honestly where they are on your priorities and to see your boss if they think you've prioritized incorrectly. You'd love to help them, and if you had a coworker/employee you could get to them sooner.

  • When you have enough data to back your argument, approach the bosses and suggest hiring an employee of whatever type you see fit. Tell them you'll write up the job posting and everything, and take responsibility for assigning them work. Demonstrate how it'll help your productivity, reference the relevant ticket/task data, and ideally tie it back to sales.

  • When the new employee comes on, don't make the same mistake your boss did! Protect them from direct user/sales contact. Users/sales meet with you, you set priorities for the week, and you assign your worker(s) tickets.

If management doesn't bite, don't fret. It all comes down to whether you can successfully make the argument for change, or move on. Sometimes it takes a few good employees leaving for companies to realize they need to change.

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One way that have worked tremendously for me is to just do every task in a first-in-first-out order. If you don't want to manage and prioritize the task queue yourself, this puts the ball back in the management corner. It also gives you a good baseline for further discussion about priorities. Whenever someone wants to jump the queue, ask your manager what is more important. Whenever someone is vague, stick to the FIFO queue.

Because you cannot do everything at once. Anytime you switch tasks in the middle of a task you end up postponing delivery of the first one. This means you risk ending up delivering nothing snd essentially wasting time. Guess what is more important between delivering old but sought after task and working on new task but never reaching delivery? That's right, you bring more value by delivering!

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Facilitate them to do the prioritization job.

I liked the answer by @notme of sales the most important one, but it's not covering one thing: What if not finishing an engineering thing will halt the company? Then everybody loses. So, I recommend the following:

Write a list with all the items there, unordered, and then set a meeting with the people to discuss what should be the order, and based on what. There is an awesome technique to do it called "Objective/Subjective prioritization" that you may see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bEtt2uriWAU

The idea: Allow the people to prioritize based on real impact on the business, and help the process to make everybody aligned on it.

After that, you'll have an ORDERED list of tasks and projects, all of them aligned with the related people. When someone will come asking for you to start working on something, discuss with him/her based on the alignment before. Ex:

Requester > I need X done by tomorrow.

You > (Key question) Is it X more important than Y in the list, based on A, B and C?

Requester > Of Course it is!

You > Please, explain me the reasons of that, and I'll write it here to show why other tasks will be demoted in the prioritization list, and start working on it as it will be its turn. < This makes people to reasoning, and realize that maybe is not as important as the others.

Then, everybody will understand your work and the prioritization. You need to be assertive to do so, but in my experience it works wonderfully.

If by any reason, the prioritization areas are not right, and based on them, the list is not correctly prioritized, iterate again to define based on what the tasks must be prioritized.

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One of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Stephen Covey) is "Put First Things First".

Covey explains that every task is:

  • urgent or not urgent

  • important or not important

Which gives four categories of tasks.

  1. Quadrant One: Urgent and Important
  2. Quadrant Two: Not Urgent and Important
  3. Quadrant Three: Urgent and Not Important
  4. Quadrant Four: Not Urgent and Not Important

Sort your tasks into the correct category, that shows you how to handle them. Q1 tasks are emergencies or crises that must be handled immediately. Q3 tasks are distractions or inefficiencies that prevent you from getting to actually important work. Q4 tasks are irresponsibilities or dysfunction. Q2 is where the true magic happens (read 7 Habits for more info).

Once you get good at categorizing your tasks, you can move to eliminate Q3 and Q4 tasks. Then you can reduce Q1 tasks. If everything is an emergency, nothing is an emergencies. Efficiencies arise from effectively working on important tasks.

Time management matrix: https://www.habitsforwellbeing.com/put-first-things-first-using-time-management-matrix/

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First in first out. If something deserves a higher priority then someone with decent knowledge of the business as a whole can make that decision and change your priorities. Someone who is part of the area you are working in, i.e. someone with a direct link to paying your bill.

Everyone always wants their things done first and thinks they have the most important item. They all have deadlines they need to meet.

Now your response is to go talk to "x". Whoever is actually paying your bills gets the final say on priorities.

Finally the ticketing system should be put into work. You can help people put them in but it should be made clear that nothing gets done without a ticket. It helps put procedure on things and reinforce the fact that people can't just rock up and expect something done immediately.

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