3 basic (priorization) assumptions

· October 30, 2018

The last couple of weeks I have talked a lot about prioritization at my current client. In many conversations, I’ve felt the need to go back the foundation of things that I build my coaching and consulting on. For example, I might question how we prioritized as we done, and then I notice that people become defensive - thinking that I am questioning them rather than the way. This has led me to reflect, formulate and then re-iterate three basic assumptions that are increasingly important to me:

  1. Everyone did their best, and continue to do so
  2. There’s always more work to do than we have the capacity to do
  3. We don’t know what will work best

Let me describe a little bit more what I mean.

Everyone did their best (and continue to do so)

This is probably (who knows - my brain … I don’t always trust it myself) a riff of the Retrospective Prime Directive:

Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.

Norm Kerth, Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Review

Yes, I know that there are evil people, but admit it: it is so much easier to discuss, whatever problem we are facing if we disregard that for a while. Also, if people are here to do evil or willingly stupid things, we have a very different problem indeed.

But, I hear you inject, isn’t this stance very gullible and naïve (double dotted i achievement unlocked)? Well No. Because if we take the stance that everyone did the best, given the information they had - then we turn our focus on improving the system that caused them to behave as they did.

If someone did something that we considered stupid, selfish or evil even, then we can now ask ourselves (thanks Dan North:

What is true in their world, to make that behaviour reasonable for them?

Or in system thinking terms:

What in our systems are so wrong that this poor person, in trying their best, thought that this action was the correct one?

Much easier, right?

Add on top of this reasoning, that in my experience I’ve never met a person that willingly is doing the wrong thing. Everyone is trying their best, from the information they have. My experience - your mileage may vary.

There’s always more work to do than we have the capacity to do

The second assumption is a funny one. Because just about every organisation I coach to spend some initial time to very carefully explain the particular context they are in. Often someone would almost whisper as if they were ashamed of it:

You know, here it’s a bit special: we have much more to do than we have the capacity.

Dear clients, past and future; that’s how every organisation in the world has it. I’ve never seen anything else. In fact; if the opposite was true it would probably be a company on the verge of dying.

Let’s try it, by going via negativa on that statement:

Here we have much more capacity than things to do.

Yes - the via negativa test works. That would be bad for the survival of the company, at least in the long run.

So we can confirm this then: there’s always more to do than we have the capacity to do. Great! That means that we need to be very careful in using this scarce capacity to do the right thing. Because doing the wrong thing means that we now spent some of the capacity, that we have too little of, to do the wrong thing. Brrr - that is the definition of waste.

Let’s make sure that whatever we prioritize so high that we are actually spending scarce and limited capacity on is the well worth it.

That just leaves one question; how do we know that?

We don’t know what will work best

Well… that is a bit sad really. Because my last assumption tells us that we cannot know what works best. The only way to uncover this knowledge is to try it for real.

Luckily it doesn’t have to be a complete thing. In fact, it’s better for us to do as small as possible. Just enough to know if what we thought was true turned out to be true.

Also lucky, for you dear reader, is that I didn’t make this up. I would be very worried indeed if this was my own thoughts. It’s not. It how science has been done for hundreds of years. Here’s how:

  1. Come up with a hypothesis: We think that X might be working awesome for our users
  2. Devise an experiment to see if that hypothesis turns out to be true
  3. Make the experiment as small as possible - remember; you could be wrong in your hypothesis. If so you don’t want to spend a dime more than you need to.
  4. With the feedback from the experiment you know can probably come up with another experiment to learn more about how the thing we are trying to do works. Make the experiment small - you might be wrong.
  5. Or our hypothesis is wrong - YAH for learning! Phew! Luckily we didn’t invest more going down that rabbit hole. And double-luck; we probably learned something to formulate another, better hypothesis on what to do now.


I’ve found that with these three and very simple assumptions in place, discussion about prioritization becomes more focused on the work and how to make the best use of our scares capacity.

They are not new or novel but I’ve also found that re-iterating them before starting discussions on we prioritize, is often worth the time and focus our common effort onto effect and away from resource utilization.

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