Priority 0 - we meet again

· April 10, 2018

I once worked at a large company where they had so many priorities 1 features that they decided to introduce … bam-bam-ba-baaaa … Priority 0. But after a few minutes, we ended up with about 5 items in that category and we realized the ridiculousness of continue to do Priority -1 etc.

Today I saw this pattern in action again, and a new realization about a missed teaching opportunity washed over me. I wanted to share this with you in this post.

The team I’m working with right now have a long (50+) backlog of items that are due to work on. Their team lead created a nice visualized board with the priorities for the top 15 items. It is great and super clear what they are prioritizing. Priority #1 is to be worked first and if you cannot do that you can pick up #2 and so on. Priority 15 is not expected to be started any time soon.

But this morning when I got into the team room I saw my old friend again. On top of the board, I saw her grinning friend: Priority 0.

It was added for all the great reasons; it was something that we wanted to do, and needed to do before the other things - in fact it would be hurtful to start with #1 before #0, “I just added it there since it would be so much work to move the other things down” etc. etc. In short - it was the highest priority. I have no objections to any this (ah, well a few - but that’s not what the blog post is about)

What struck me was the lost teaching/learning opportunity. Because if we have a new highest priority it should be in position 1. That’s what priority 1 means - so important that we are working on this. First.

Logically follows that the other things that were prioritized are now not priority 1 - because there’s a new priority 1. Hence all other tickets should be moved down.

The learning is that when we prioritize something as 1, it has an effect on the priority we have made already. Only one thing can be #1. Even if everything is most important. At any given time we are working on one highest priority. Switching frequently is bad for the lead time of the thing that we are working on. See this simulation and Little’s law if you want proof.

Priority 1 - so important that we are working on it.

Priority 2, not as important as Priority 1.

By adding a Priority 0 we are often indicating that this is also important, and implicit expectation is that the Priority 0 is going to happen, magically somehow, at the same time as the previous priority.

Important, but not urgent

The board had another feature as well, which is related. It had a few stickies under the heading: “Things that we want to work on when we get the time”. They said things like “Improve process [a process name that I cannot reveal]” and “Investigate the performance issues”. It was placed on top of the board - outside the priority.

This is what we call intangible work. Stuff that is important, but never urgent. We need to do it but if we wait another day it will still be ok. For now. If we wait for a very long time we will have a very big problem. Technical debt is one phrase that has been used to describe this type of work

I got bad news; you will never get there. You will never get time for those. All good intentions and devoted days in the world will not help you. As they are stated now, at least.

I think there are two reasons:

  1. Those things are not on the list of prioritized work. The order is not 1, 2, unprioritized, 4, unprioritized, 5, 6 … No, it’s 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.
  2. The second thing is that, as those items are stated, they unbounded. There’s no time limit nor a goal or outcome.

Both of these problems are easily fixed though:

  1. Put it on the list. For example after 5 “normal” we do a “Things that we want to do”. That’s 20% of our capacity devoted to what most often are improvements of our system. That’s ok, I’d say. How much capacity do think is appropriate, for you, now?
  2. The second point above is often one of two problems:
    1. The thing cannot be easily broken down into concrete tasks; “Investigate performance issues”, for example. This is Good News (TM) because that is easy to break down. Sounds counter-intuitive but try to time box the problem. Like this for example; “2 days worthy of investigating performance issue”. After that, we will at least know much more about the problem and can probably define a few more concrete work items.
    2. We have just not thought about the outcome of our work, just the activities or the output. “Improve process x” is a good example. Why? How much? How can an improvement be seen? What is it now? What is reasonable to achieve, within how long time box?
    3. As you saw from the last question these two approaches of making this type of work more concrete and actionable. And hence easier to prioritize.


I would recommend you to always refrain from adding a Priority 0-category, and instead take that opportunity to learn about the consequences of re-prioritizing. Adding something at Priority 1 means that all the other things need to move down a notch.

Also, for intangible work (important but not urgent), add them to the prioritized list as all other work and make it concrete and sizeable, either by time boxing them or by focusing on the outcome we are trying to achieve.

Twitter, Facebook