The Importance of Shared Priorities Between Managers and Direct Reports
2 February, 2022
Setting a Cut Line For Work Priorities
My company was one of the first to ask everyone to work from home in early March 2020 due to the COVID-19 outbreak. A few months later, a member of my team had a significant amount on their plate in terms of personal and work life. I learned this in a one-on-one as I felt he was acting out of character. I asked him what was going on; he shared he was having trouble keeping up with tasks and deadlines for his projects and dealing with child-care challenges at the same time. He was stressed out because he was falling further and further behind.
I first thanked him for coming to me with his challenges. Many individuals have a difficult time sharing their personal struggles even if they are directly impacting their work. I wanted to create a course of action to make his workload more manageable and ensure he was focused on what we both thought were the most important things.
It’s common in software product management to create a list of features or deliverables and decide what’s in and out for a release depending on inputs like time and priorities. This “cut line” ultimately defines what will and won’t ship.
We applied this technique to this person’s worklist. I first asked this person to make a list of all of his work in priority order. For each item in the list, he indicated what the next deliverable was and its due date. Then, I asked him to draw a cut line at some point down the list; everything below the line indicated work that wouldn’t get done anytime soon because of available time.
We reviewed the list, and agreed on the answers to the following questions:
- Are the items in the right priority order?
- Are the dates correct?
- Are there things below the line that need to be moved above the line?
The last question is key: for anything we needed to move above the line, we tried hard to move something else below. Then, for things below the line, we found ways to defer the work a week or two, delegate it to someone else, or in one case just not do it at all.
His list started out with seven or eight items all being worked on in parallel. Together we made the list have three or four items above the line and a few below. Lessening his workload allowed this person some breathing room and let him focus more time on fewer things, and allowed more time to figure out child care. After a week or two, he felt a lot better about his work.
The Importance of Tradeoff Conversations
I believe all employees should be empowered to make these types of lists with their managers. It’s especially important for high performers who may have a tendency to say “yes” too often and oversubscribe themselves. Not only do these lists honestly convey what the employee can and can’t do, but they also force a tradeoff conversation when someone wants to add work. When someone in the organization asks the report to take on another project, they can reference the list with their manager and say “OK, what are we going to move down to make room?”.
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