229 Whoever prioritizes quickly knows what is and is not done

People do not make decisions when they are unsure what else they need to do. This dilemma becomes clear when one demands a commitment. Have you experienced when an urgent problem arises, you want to solve it immediately, but you hesitate? You suspect that you might cause a conflict with deadlines or resources. Here you need a prioritization process to decide what to do and what not to do. This is how you decide which topics are urgent and important. If you don’t master the prioritization process, then stress, failure and finally overload and burnout are pre-programmed.

The dilemma of being human

Prioritizing and then deciding seems to have a predetermined order. Deciding already requires prioritization, but this itself requires decisions for evaluation. With this recursion  a universal dilemma begins, for all people, whether employees, manager or agile teams. Processes  related to themselves are difficult to understand.

A decision is commonly defined as a selection from a prioritization: the choice between at least two action alternatives (Smith 1776, Kant 1878, Taylor 1903, Simon 1965, Thaler 1980, Gabler-Lexikon 2013, Wikipedia 2020). However, in order to be able to decide between two or more alternatives, one must first decide the criteria against which they will evaluate the options.

Kind of crazy, right? So it is no wonder that the discussion is so confusing when the definition already contradicts itself. To make matters worse, prioritization is a cyclical process, which in turn contains several decisions.

Prioritization solves the core business question

What is to be done and what is not to be done? In an organization, various requirements from different areas compete for the limited resources of time, budget, competencies, focus, and implementation capacities. For the sake of simplicity, alternative courses of action, requirements, demands, assignments, topics, ideas, epics, tasks, etc. are referred to as “stories.”

By prioritizing, goals are achieved that apply equally to managers and teams. Often many video conferencing tools are used and managers have the job of deciding which tool to use. Thus, the decision for a video conferencing tool allows employees to work together remotely without problems. In the same way, an agile team commits itself to the implementation of the selected stories after prioritization in planning. The classic decision as well as the commitment within the team can be easily and securely established with the Commitment Process

In the classic case, prioritization distinguishes the one option (Fig.1: A) that has to be done. All other options are discarded. In the same way, prioritization can select a group of tasks (Fig.1: B) to be processed in a given timeframe and identifies what is not processed in this timeframe. Moreover, a sequence can be optionally created.

KiE - Decision and commitment
Figure 01: Decision and commitment

In both the professional and personal spheres, prioritization is the important standard process that reliably identifies which stories need to be done. When prioritization occurs, all participants are aligned with the given goals and achieve maximum benefit with available resources.

What is the difference between prioritizing and making  a decision?

Prioritization is a cyclical process in which the various stories (action alternatives) are evaluated based on criteria. Making a decision is the process of an individual or a team committing to the most excellent option to implement with  action.

The decision for a selected task (Fig.1: B) is called “commitment” (Fig.1: B). In the classical definition, the term commitment is already used, especially when the decision is made by a team. Here, prioritization is intended to produce the best alternative action. If it fails, there is the threat of non-decision. The decision to do nothing is always a valid option and should therefore be included as a story with its opportunity costs.

If the prioritization process produces the only option (Fig.1: A) as the best result, the desired situation is achieved. The theorists’ demand for criteria that lead to a clear selection is not always guaranteed, especially if several people or teams are involved. The hope that algorithms, statistics or artificial intelligence would solve the problem is partly justified, but ultimately, an illusion.

In a decision, timeframe and the necessary resources are usually given as a premise. The premises are included in the decision to implement the decision according to the respective requirements (governance). 

Result of prioritizing to make a decision

There are a variety of options to make a decision. In the following, a selection of the possible options for decision making is prioritized (Fig.2). Often the supposedly best option is not good enough after all, or the result of prioritization results in difficult situations.

Options that are fixed, such as the authoritarian decision (Fig.2: A), often cannot be ignored easily. 

A decision becomes particularly difficult if several options are marked as attractive (Fig.2: B). The situation becomes worse if the number of attractive options is high.

KiE - Complicated situations in a result of a prioritization process
Figure 2: Complicated situations in a result of a prioritization process

Problematic are options with dependencies (Fig.2: C), such as algorithms for decision support, which do not clearly indicate when, where, and to what extent humans are involved or intervene autonomously. Options that are not yet mature, such as artificial intelligence, are nevertheless repeatedly placed, even if they should not be formally prioritized.

Options that lie beyond known ideas (Fig.2: E) are not even considered in the prioritization process.

Regrettable are options such as the jointly supported decision (Fig.2: D), which would be available but have not yet found acceptance.    

Result of prioritization for a group of tasks

Prioritization creates the list of stories, which is limited by the available capacities and can be processed within a defined period. Agile methods define a fixed time frame for this, the sprint. The backlog (Fig.3: A) with the stories for the further development of the KiE-DecisionMaker is listed below.

The prioritization (Fig.3: B) determines which stories are to be implemented next. The effort (Fig.3: C) specifies which stories can be implemented in the sprint. With a velocity (capacity) of 50 story points (effort units) the first four stories can be processed. With each additional story, the sum of the story points (graphic 3: D) would exceed the capacity of the sprint. The sprint includes the first 4 stories (Fig.3: E).

KiE - Prioritized Backlog for Sprint Planning
Figure 3: Prioritized Backlog for Sprint Planning

At the end of the prioritization, the sprint is secured with a commitment using the to-do list (fig.3: E). The commitment process reliably and promptly establishes the commitment within the team. 

The KiE Prioritization Process

The prioritization process consists of 3 steps that must be undertaken for each story:

1. commitment to understanding the stories

2. assessment of the priority of all stakeholders

3. commitment to a priority

Optionally, the order of the stories within the groups (8, 9 and 10) is further refined.

Prioritization indicator – The standardized KiE Prioritization Process is adapted to the given situation. Essential is the design of the dimensions for a prioritization index, which is mapped with the KiE scale. In the entrepreneurial context it is usually the “business importance”.

KiE - Dimensions for the prioritization number
Figure 4: Dimensions for the prioritization number

Understanding – The first task is to determine the  understanding of the stories to be prioritized. The quality is brought to a quality level (8) in advance with the WeQuality Process. This prerequisite is essential, as otherwise the Prioritization Process could be delayed, and undesirable stories could be excluded. Typically, a story is presented in a given time. 

A commitment concludes the understanding (Fig.5: A). To ensure commitment, a limited number of comprehension questions (Fig.6: A1) may be asked about the story.

First priority assessment – This is usually done according to the criteria of urgency and importance. Each individual carries out the assessment with the multiple foci: personally, the team, the department, and the entire company. The first priority usually shows a higher diversity (Fig.5: B). 

In this step it is important to prioritize the story independently of other topics. A focus on other participants as well as on other stories that one would like to prioritize, or downgrade, is a human weakness. In this phase it leads to distortions and compromises that weaken the whole process. For this phase, corresponding learning and perpetuation phases should be planned in the introduction.

KiE - Understanding - first and final priority - commitment to priority
Figure 5: Understanding – first and final priority – commitment to priority

Final Priority – Participants with low and high prioritization justify their prioritization (Fig.6: B1) and thus build up knowledge for all participants. The final prioritization usually shows a mature result (Fig.5: C).

Commitment for prioritization – In the final step the priority for the story is confirmed in a commitment (Fig.5: D).

If no commitment is made in the first step, a limited number of comprehension questions about the commitment of the participants (Fig.6: C.1) will further build the knowledge in the team. If no commitment actually succeeds, the design defines the process by which the priority is set, usually authoritarian.

Remote DecisionMaker – All process steps can be supported with the KiE remote DecisionMaker. All DecisionMaking Processes are mapped with the remote DecisionMaker for remote collaboration as well as for presence meetings in traditional areas and for the Agile-Way-of-Working.

Deterministic prioritization process

The KiE Prioritization Process leads to a reliable result. This ensures that the prioritization is guaranteed to be achieved in a predictable time. The time can be calculated depending on specifications and experience times.

KiE - The prioritization process provides a sequence in 3 steps
Figure 6: The prioritization process provides a sequence in 3 steps

Order of Stories – Agile methods use the prioritized stories in the backlog directly for sprint planning (Fig.6: D). Traditional methods determine a project plan from the prioritized requirements. If the number of Stories in the groups with the prioritized metrics (8), (9) and (10) is too large (Fig.6: D.1), they are put into an order with the Fibonacci number series (Fig.6: D.2).  

Master of DecisionMaking

The complexity of the prioritization process results from the fact that all decision forms – evaluation, prioritization and commitment – are executed in a sequence and cyclically.

Only after prioritization are the stories limited by the available resources. This process can only be carried out consciously and can only be achieved to a limited extent with the human decision process (Fig.7). People usually try to find out the most important story or stories in one step and thus sabotage themselves and others.

The human decision process is only conditionally suitable for prioritization because people can only remember 1 to 3 prioritizations in their working memory. The prioritization is a conscious process and requires necessarily to remember the options for comparison.  

KiE - Prioritization as a human decision process
Figure 7: Prioritization as a human decision process

The prioritization process should be led by a Master of DecisionMaking. Typically, the Agile Master takes over this task.

This relieves the participants in both agile and traditional environments. This allows everyone to concentrate on the prioritization process itself. Conscious and unconscious distortions and manipulation are eliminated by the KiE Prioritization Process.

The human decision is also a prioritization

On closer inspection, a decision is also a prioritization process (Fig.8), because intuition and cognition must be evaluated and brought together to make a decision.

KiE - Intuitive and cognitive decision as prioritization
Figure 8: Intuitive and cognitive decision as prioritization

Each participant would do well to learn the KiE DecisionMaking Strategy in the run-up to prioritization, so that the prioritization process is easy.

With the prioritization process the set goals are achieved

With the prioritization process, managers and agile teams achieve both entrepreneurial and personal goals. The fit between the jointly supported selection of topics and the given time frame is easily found. The subsequent planning with the available and usually limited resources becomes child’s play and rewards the disciplined prioritization process.

Reference Strategy Meeting

At the strategy meeting of a leading online retailer, 13 managing directors across Europe met every two weeks to prioritize the implementation of strategic planning. There was already considerable tension in the company.

Step 1: Shadowing – The actual situation was recorded by a notetaker shadowing the meeting. In the strategy meeting (Fig.9: A), the shadowing resulted in only 3 prioritizations per meeting (Fig.9 B). This key performance indicator was used as the only KPI for controlling the implementation.

KiE - Three stories per strategy meeting were prioritized
Figure 9: Three stories per strategy meeting were prioritized

This performance was not nearly enough to prioritize the stories for implementation. The superficial symptoms were already high dissatisfaction within the management team, especially with the unfair selection for implementation. It became obvious that experienced managers knew their ways of getting their stories implemented alongside the official route.

Step 2: Cleaning up the backlog – The backlog of 200 unprocessed stories (Fig.10: A) is also a clear symptom of a non-functional prioritization. In most cases, the stories in the backlog age without maturing in a structured quality process. Consequently, new and urgent stories overtake the old ones, a it is hard to manage the backlog.

KiE - Cleanup of the backlog
Figure 10: Cleanup of the backlog

As a one-off measure, the product owners used the WeQuality Process (Fig. 10: B) to bring all stories to a minimum quality level and prioritized (Fig. 10: C) the stories in the backlog. In this way, the number of stories in the backlog was significantly reduced. After the WeQuality and KiE Prioritization Process there were 120 stories in the backlog (Fig.10: D). This was the first time that a basis was created for starting the prioritization process with weekly strategy meetings. The goal of reducing the backlog to 60 stories came within reach for the first time.

Step 3: Introduction of the prioritization process – The prioritization process (Fig.11: A) was designed with a small core team and refined in 3 test runs until a secure process was guaranteed for the 13 managing directors. The introduction of the prioritization process required a clear and facilitative Master of DecisionMaking, as existing behavior and tactics were transformed into a clear process. Already in the first strategy meeting, a performance of 7 prioritizations was achieved and after 3 meetings a stable performance of 15 were achieved (Fig.11: B).

KiE - From 3 to 15 priorities in the strategy meeting
Figure 11: From 3 to 15 priorities in the strategy meeting

The stories in the backlog were in a good state of maturity and could be implemented with their priority in the further process with Agile-Way of Working.

In this case study it took three months of intensive work to go from design to stable velocity. 

Stability and Performance

With this functioning prioritization process and the increased competence in the strategy meeting, it was possible to return to regular operations after the initial three months. The performance increased by a factor of 5 (Fig.11: C).  This shows the efficiency of the KiE Prioritization Process, as well as the importance of prioritization for the success of any company.

The prioritization process must be introduced and made permanent with a commitment of the participants in a change process, because it significantly changes the existing influence on what is and is not done. This often means an intervention in existing strongholds.

The vision, the mission and the goal are always in focus both in the design of the prioritization process and in the prioritization of the individual stories.

Overview of DecisionMaking Processes

The prioritization process is the central process for a functioning cooperation and an appreciative treatment of each other. The recursive character of DecisionMaking Processes is also evident in the prioritization process. It integrates all DecisionMaking Processes and is itself involved in many of them.

With DecisionMaking, decision making culture and corporate culture develop autonomously and is self-organized. Stakeholders are much more likely to get what they need. People begin to understand each other and work together more closely.

KiE DecisionMaking
Figure 12: KiE DecisionMaking

The DecisionMaking Processes can be used with the digitized DecisionMaker for both presence and remote collaboration.

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August 2020, Richard Graf und Elsa Graf

“Prioritizing is the core process for leaders and agile teams.“ Richard Graf

Sources

Graf, Richard: Die neue Entscheidungskultur: mit gemeinsam getragenen Entscheidungen zum Erfolg. Carl Hanser Verlag GmbH Co KG, 2018

Barnard, C., & Simon, H. A. (1947). Administrative behavior. A study of decision-making processes in administrative organization. New York: Free Press.

Kant, I. (1878). Kritik der praktischen Vernunft von Immanuel Kant. Vol. 1111. P. Reclam.

Thaler, Richard. (1980). Toward a positive theory of consumer choice. Journal of economic behavior & organization 1.1: 39-60.

Taylor, F. W. (1993). Shop Management. In: Transactions. American Society of Mechanical engineers, Band XXVIII, 1903, S. 1337–1480.

Tversky, A. & D. Kahneman. (1973). Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive Psychology. 4: 207–232.

Sjurts, I. (Ed.). (2013). Gabler Lexikon Medien Wirtschaft. Springer-Verlag.

Waszek, N. (1993). Adam Smith in Germany, 1776–1832. In Adam Smith: International Perspectives (pp. 163-180). Palgrave Macmillan, London.

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