Stepping into a leadership role invites a whole host of new demands. Learn how you can better prioritize them.
As people transition into leadership roles, one of the biggest challenges they face is deciding what to work on. If you’re part of a healthy software team, you probably use a Kanban board that always informs the team of their top-priority work items.
In this regard, if a new leader is used to a more team-oriented approach when prioritizing work, they may not be so confident in planning their own personal to-dos. Here are some practical ways to prioritize work as a new leader or manager.
Bring everything into a single place
As a leader, you will receive many requests and actions. Some of these will be intended for your team, but often, many of these will be specifically for you.
You should already have a team process in place for capturing and managing teamwork, but you will need to find one that works for your own personal requirements. Start by building a single list of all your work requests and actions. Gather your to-dos from emails, chat messages, meetings, conversations, your notebook, and other random thoughts.
It doesn’t really matter where you store them as long as they’re in the same place; I’ve seen effective leaders use a notepad, a Trello or personal Kanban board, and to-do apps.
Once again, the specific tool or location doesn’t matter as long as it’s a single place. If your to-dos are scattered across different mediums, you’re effectively creating several work queues. Each queue will have its own top priority, and if you have three work queues, you now have to manage three different top priorities. Keeping all to-dos in a single queue makes it obvious what the highest priority is at any given time.
Set aside the time to prioritize
There is a good reason that XP and Scrum have regular sprint planning sessions. You need time to prioritize. Having a list is a good starting point but this won’t automatically sort itself into priority order.
Just as the priorities for a team shift over time (one item becoming more urgent or important), so will your to-do list. I find it helpful, at the start of the day, to set aside five to ten minutes so that I can review my most important priorities for both the rest of that day and the following one. I also find it essential to have 30-60 minutes at least once a week to search through the list to see if the top five to ten priorities reflect the most urgent situations for the coming week.
For example, if someone just quit, you probably want to make sure their exit interview and offboarding are prioritized. On the other hand, if someone is about to be staffed into your team, you probably need to prioritize their onboarding process to maximize their productivity and mitigate instances of them waiting around.
Sort priorities by impact
I know that all to-do lists grow to a possibly overwhelming degree. Don’t worry about prioritizing everything in the “right” order. Depending on how much you think you can get through in a day or a week, I suggest focusing on prioritizing the top five to ten items.
It’s more important to complete things on your action list than to prioritize them perfectly. Spend ten minutes ranking tasks in order of priority and then use the rest of the time to tackle them. If you can complete actions quickly, then the specific priorities of each item don’t really matter. Tackle items that have the most impact, which you can complete without being blocked or requiring additional support. In the cases where you are dependent on others, see if you can split an item into smaller, actionable parts.
Prioritize based on larger goals
Although objectives and key results (OKRs) are hard to carry out, one good thing about effective OKRs is they help link work to a higher goal. Here, transparency can help you prioritize your work. If a task is connected to the topmost organizational goal, then this should be easier to prioritize over someone else’s ask. Prioritizing based on public goals makes the process less political and more objective as you have an external reason you can point to.
Prioritize at least one non-urgent task per week
Many leaders can feel like all they are doing is working on urgent tasks. This can create a reactive circle and one you don’t have the time to break out of – like a team who gets caught up in endlessly resolving production incidents instead of running post-mortems and address contributing or root causes. Ultimately, the team is doomed to fix the same incident again and again.
Instead of reacting to all the urgent tasks, I encourage you to prioritize at least one non-urgent task each week. The non-urgent task should move you towards a long-term goal or create more time for you in the long run.
Use your non-urgent time to think about how you can address your urgent issues more effectively and what you need to do to reduce the frequency of urgent items. Good examples of non-urgent work might include planning or thinking time.
Pre-allocate your week to different priority themes
If you have tried all of the above and are still having issues prioritizing, consider slicing your week into different time boxes and dedicating each time box to a different priority.
For me, this is the less preferable option as you have more work in progress and it often requires context switching. However, this approach may work well if you need to demonstrate progress on several fronts alongside possibly managing multiple stakeholders, each of who have different needs.
This is similar to having dedicated 1:1 time each week. You don’t know what will come up, but you’ve preallocated that time so that you can deal with any topics brought up in conversation regardless of their priority.
Prioritization is hard but worth it
Prioritizing is always a hard skill, but if you’re a new leader, it’s worth deliberately focusing on improving it as it’s the one that will ultimately determine your impact.
Get comfortable with the fact that there will always be more work than time. Get comfortable with the fact that others will have different perceptions of priorities. And get comfortable with the fact that you’ll need to stick to your priorities, or you’ll never accomplish the things you want to be a leader.