The consequences of prioritizing

· April 17, 2019

Been talking a lot about the consequences of prioritizing today at my client. And about psycological safety

This excellent story that Staffan introduced me too, came to mind. (I’ll summarize it below - this is just an intro, to get you to read on)

And I came to think about how the consequences of prioritizing one thing over others, often end up becoming blame for the team. When it really should be praise…

The Story

The Warren Buffet story goes something like this: Mr Buffet asks his pilot to list his top 25 career goals. He does and returns to Mr Buffet only to get another request: Now please circle the 5 items on that list. This is, of course, tricky but after some time he comes back. Mr Buffet now ask his pilot: What are you going to do with the other 20? and obviously he answers that this is for later, or as he gets time.

To this Mr Buffet response is:

No. You’ve got it wrong, Mike. Everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5.

Because if he start focusing on the other 20, the 5 prioritized items are not prioritized. He should drop the other 20 items and not look back or feel regret. Until he has the capacity to take on new items, for example when the first 5 are completed.


When we prioritize we choose something over something else, with good intentions. This is what prioritizing means

the action or process of deciding the relative importance or urgency of a thing or things

So when we, in a team, chose to spend time on item A over item B - it is for a reason. That reason might be good (more value sooner for example) or bad (someone screamed at us to do it). But that doesn’t really matter. We have made our choice: Item A it is.

Now to the Warren-Buffet-question: what about Item B (and all other non-prioritized items)?:

They are now on our Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5

In the real world

Following along in the (rock-solid) reasoning of this blog post you might now think for yourself: Yes, of course. That is very clear. But sadly, what I’ve experienced and seen in my explorations of the real world is something very different:

  • Teams get blamed for not doing Item B
  • There’s an expectation that Item B will get done anyway, often unspoken.
  • Team feels bad that they couldn’t take on Item B and sneak it in anyway.
  • Item B guy (often) gets grumpy and annoyed over that “Item B never gets done - I’ve been waiting forever”

Seriously - I see this all over. And for many years now.

What would be cool to see instead

That team should get rewarded for not doing Item B. We should applaud them and thank them. Item A got proper focus now. Thank you, team.

We could very well have argued that picking Item A over B was the wrong decision, but that is a very different question than to blame the team for not doing B too when we prioritized A. The system and grounds of priority doesn’t seem clear to everyone. Let’s work on that.

We could also argue that both of them are equally important, that we cannot make up our minds, or that we don’t know which is more important. This too is not the same as blaming the team for not doing both. We could, however, solve this by slicing both Item A and B in thinner slices (that deliver some value) and do a shorter burst of focused work. Or, which is my favourite, when we really don’t know the size - then let’s set a timebox; Here’s 1 week worth of focused Item A work. Let’s talk after that and see if we understand more about the value of it.

We could, in a similar fashion, argue that Item A is WAAAAY bigger than Item B. Just look at it. It’s several months worth of work. But that is no reason to yell at the team for following the priority and not doing Item B. But I would strongly recommend slicing any items that we want to spend the precious capacity of the team on, into smaller pieces than that. How about we set a rule that nothing bigger than 2 weeks can be started by the week?


Prioritizing Item A over Item B means that Item B is, rightly, on our avoid at all cost-list. We should promote and congratulate teams for doing that. This will not only give Item A the attention our prioritizing was meant to give it, but also give the team a focused work situation.

Did you see that I didn’t write forever and always in my bits of advice? I’m not smart enough for those kinds of advice. Thinking is still required.

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