Collaborate! Don’t Hide Behind Priorities.

Picture this — I’ll bet it’s happened to you more than once. Your boss, business stakeholder or customer approaches you and asks you to take on an important assignment. It’s not a major project but it’s not a quick or simple undertaking either.

You already have more work in your queue than you can complete anytime soon. Adding this new assignment to the mix only complicates matters. So you ask the obvious question — “What is the priority?”. Should you drop everything and get right on this? Should it become a background activity that you’ll work on as time allows? Should it be started as soon as something else finishes?

Here’s the problem. Asking the “What is the priority?” question, shifts the responsibility from you to the requester. If the work is not high priority and doesn’t get done, you can always say “Well, you decided the priority.” Technically speaking, that’s true. Practically speaking, you failed!

Our bosses, stakeholders and customers expect us to find ways to get things done. We are the experts — the solution providers. If we can’t get the work done, who can? Pushing the responsibility back on them won’t enhance your reputation or improve your stature in the organization. In the end, people will remember that you couldn’t deliver what they needed. It’s not about priorities, staffing levels or workloads. It’s about getting stuff done.

Here’s what you should do instead.

  1. Ask the “Is this a high priority request?” question. If there is a crisis or an urgent need, you want to know and you need to start immediately.
  2. If it’s not urgent (and it likely is not), turn the discussion toward what result is acceptable. Rather than thinking in terms of all or nothing, think about a “minimum viable deliverable”. Is there something you can deliver in the short term that will satisfy the core need? You can always add more to the solution later.
  3. Consider re-evaluating existing projects and redirecting one or more of them toward a “minimum viable deliverable” to free up time for this new request.

The key point is to collaborate with the requester and find a mutually beneficial solution. When people are reasonable and relationships are good, this approach often works.

Having said that, there will be exceptions. Let’s face it, some people are unreasonable and some relationships are poor. Yet, even if the approach fails, at least you tried. The requester will walk away feeling that you made an effort to help. That effort will likely leave the requester with a better understanding of the issues you face. Maybe next time he’ll be more collaborative.

There’s a lot more to being agile than simply implementing Scrum, Kanban, Lean or XP. Agile is a mindset that begins with collaboration.

Updated: January 17, 2012 — 9:57 pm