Being effective – Prioritization and Judgment

This post is the last of the series of posts I am doing on Being Effective at workplace.

Prioritization is about working on things that are most important (and not merely most urgent) for the organization and for self. Judgment is about making decisions at the right time, in the right way, for the right reasons. Making good judgment and being able to prioritize the work correctly greatly aid the effectiveness of people. Prioritization allows one to focus on a few important things and deliver results, rather than spreading the energy too thin on too many things. Judgment allows one to make right decisions at the right time, even with incomplete data, and complete the work in time.

Prioritization

For effective people, prioritization is all about alignment. Here are some of the tenets of effective prioritization I have seen practiced:

  • Understanding goals and objectives of the organization/team: Priorities of work must be aligned with organizational goals and objectives. Depending on the work and scope of influence someone has, this may mean team level, department level, or organization level. To achieve this alignment, these goals and objectives must be understood well. This is not as easy as it sounds. Organizational goals are usually stated more generic manner (‘increase revenue by 30%’) than what is usable. Effective people constantly try to interpret them and also use behaviors of senior management to understand these objectives better (‘actions speak louder than words’).
  • Understanding and anticipating goals and objectives of your manager, peers, and reports: Since most work gets done with the involvement of one or more of your manager, peer or report, it is essential to align your work to goals and objectives of these people too. If it is important to your manager (or your report), it should be important to you, otherwise you will either not get the support or you will cause frustration and lack of productivity. Understanding these objectives are harder, because these people very rarely articulate their objectives in so many words for many different reasons (managers may not know that you don’t understand their goals, peers may not share too much with you, your reports may not feel safe enough to share goals with you).
  • Understanding gaps between personal value system and organizational values: Many times, we don’t prioritize correctly because our personal value system are in conflict with organizational values as we perceive them. For example, the organization might want to focus on delivering results, while you may want to focus more on employee training and growth, and this may make you prioritize and deprioritize work items in a way that is different from what is expected of you. In such cases, effective people try to come to terms with this conflict, stay aware of these, and factor these in when prioritizing. When these conflicts become too strong, it is time to ‘change’ the organization or change the ‘organization’J.
  • Willingness to revisit priorities when new data comes in: Other than alignment, single biggest impediment to right prioritization is inability to reprioritize when new data comes in. World changes so fast around us, and new information keeps coming in. It is important to revisit priorities based on new data and new realities. For example, in an emergency room of a hospital, you might walk in with a severe tummy ache and you might be next in line, but your X-ray result (‘everything looks good’) may push you back in the line and let someone else be looked at first. In real life, effective people keep doing reprioritization of their work constantly (without churning too much of course!) and stay aligned with the new information available to them.

In summary, most prioritization problems are really alignment problems with organization, people (manager, peer, report), values, and information. To solve them, we need to focus on constantly understanding them (because they keep changing without notice), as well as on changing them when we feel they need to change. This is a different problem than prioritization, but as I mentioned in a previous post, effective people focus on solving root cause of problems. For example, if your manager is not bought into the idea of growing people in order to deliver results, and if you think manager is wrong, the right approach is to work with manager and help him/her change this attitude. Going ahead with your own priority of growing people when manager hasn’t changed is a recipe for poor results and conflict with the manager, this doesn’t help the organization in any way.

Judgment

For effective people, judgment is about 2 things: decision-making, and ability to ‘make the call’.

Effective decision-making is a skill that is easily learned but requires constant practice and experience (see this and this). Effective people try to get 3 things right when making decisions:

  • Right process: A decision making process is needed for every decision in order to make it transparent, fair and robust. High quality decisions come out of a structured decision-making process; decisions made under time pressure or other ad-hoc way yield poor results and effective people avoid it. There are many processes you can use, but it is important to pick one and make sure everyone involved understands and practices it (see Six Thinking Hats, Decision making, and Preparing for decision-making meetings for a few examples).
  • Right people: Identifying right stakeholders and contributors is critical for decision making because those who can influence the outcome need to be part of the decision-making process. This helps in buy-in as well as getting right inputs so that right decision can be made.
  • Right time – A delayed decision is a decision itself and most of the time it is a sub-optimal decision. Therefore, effective people make sure that the decisions are made at the right time. It may mean forcing a decision (and with incomplete data), or it may mean careful orchestration of the decision-making process and project management, but either way, a decision is made that is the best under the circumstances. Delayed decisions are mostly a result of poor time management (assuming right process and right people are applied) and effective people keep a sharp focus on deadlines for decision-making.

‘Making the call’ is the ability to make decisions even when complete information is not available. Given all possible information, it is always easy (and sometimes very algorithmic) to make a decision. Therefore, the ability to make a call is a critical skill for people who need to display good judgment. This is variously described as ‘gut instinct’ or ‘feel’, but it is grounded in two tenets:

  • Summarized experiences: Experiences (good and bad) get stored in our brain in the form of shortcuts (‘fire is hot, I burnt my hand in it once’), and these shortcuts get applied to new situations in ways where it is difficult to trace the thought process, and hence the usage of ‘feel’ and ‘instinct’. However, such summarized experiences are critical to ‘making the call’, without these, these ‘calls’ are as likely to be wrong as right.
  • Courage: Being able to take decision with incomplete information takes courage. While ‘gut’ can offer you a solution, it requires courage to accept it and implement it as a decision. Effective people (and effective leaders) possess this courage to take these decisions if deadline is approaching, and then execute hard on it to make it work. There is a chance that this turns out to be a wrong ‘call’ or decision, but effective people know that taking the decision with best of your abilities is a better approach than delaying the decision in the long run.

In ‘JUDGMENT: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls‘, Noel Tichy makes the argument that judgment is actually a process and not an event in time, and this process involves 3 phases: preparation, the call, and execution, along 3 domains: people, strategy and crisis. For a good overview of this model of judgment, read Leadership Judgment: Without this, nothing else matters and Book Excerpt.

In summary, Prioritization and Judgment are closely related, because both of them achieve the same goal of delivering timely results, and good judgment allows right prioritization, and right prioritization makes judgment (and decision-making in general) that much more effective. Mastering these make us an effective contributor, leader, and manager.

This is the last post in the series. Hopefully these posts generated some thoughts and ideas. I will look forward to your comments on this series.

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