Split Prioritization Disorder

I recently discovered a disorder that has affected many organizations. This disorder often begins quietly, starting slowly in some areas of an organization and spreading quickly throughout. Soon an entire organization suffers from it and is paralyzed by an inability to get work done.

Common Symptoms

  • Frequent complaints of too many meetings
  • Work progressing slowly
  • A large list of projects that need almost-constant scheduling (and rescheduling)
  • Numerous, lengthy project status reports
  • Frequent complaints of not having enough time to get real work done
  • An individual “resource” being assigned to numerous projects
  • Many projects in progress at the same time

What is Split Prioritization Disorder?

Split Prioritization Disorder is an organizational condition that occurs when an organization is unable to decide what to focus on and, as a result, increases its work in progress which results in increased lead times.

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Split Prioritization Disorder occurs when an organization, for whatever reason, cannot determine a reasonable amount of items to focus on and instead tries to tackle numerous initiatives that exceed the capacity of the organization. When this happens, lead times grow as the organization increases its work in progress but is limited by the amount of throughput it is capable of due to bottlenecks.

This is explained by something called Little’s Law:

Lead Time = Work in Progress / Throughput Rate

In other words, the amount of time it takes to have a new feature or product go from being an idea to being completed, usable, and shipped is directly affected by the amount of work in progress in an organization.

When this concept is combined with Eliyahu Goldratt’s theory of constraints, it is easy to begin to see why organizations that are affected by Split Prioritization Disorder struggle with getting work done. The theory of constraints proposes that the output of a process is limited by at least one constraint and that any efforts to increase throughput that do not improve the constraint will not result in increased throughput.

food cold wood handAn example of how this works is a bottle. Pouring liquid from a bottle results in a quick discovery – there is a bottleneck that limits flow. Regardless of what technique is used to pour the beer, the flow is ultimately constrained by the size of the neck of the bottle. If you want liquid to flow faster, you have to increase the capacity of the bottleneck.

Common Causes

  • Not having decision makers that are accountable and responsible for determining priority
  • Having too many decision makers that are accountable and responsible for determining priority
  • Having the wrong people in the role of determining priority (people that don’t have the authority or respect to make decisions and get overridden by others)
  • Trying to satisfy all customers at once (also known as the inability to say ‘no’)
  • Trying to maintain 100% utilization of “resources”
  • Politics at a leadership level that cause a leadership team to run in split directions rather than agreeing on a common direction
  • Assigning people to work on multiple priorities at the same time

Becoming Agile

Being agile as an organization means being able to effectively respond to changing demands. Organizations that suffer from Split Prioritization Disorder are unable to do this. If an organization wants to move towards agility, it must find a cure for its Split Prioritization Disorder.

The cure varies depending on what’s causing an organization’s Split Prioritization Disorder, and some common practices for curing Split Prioritization Disorder are:

  • Determining areas of work that are distinct from each other. These are commonly called products or work streams.
  • Creating a single list of features/functionality/work for each area. This is frequently called a backlog.
  • Designating an owner for each area of work. Each owner is accountable and responsible for determining priority within their area. A committee can influence the owner’s decisions of priority, but the owner is accountable and has the final say.
  • Designating teams that are dedicated to an area of work.
  • Having teams from each area of work select a limited number of items from that area’s backlog that they can focus on completing.

Jordan Job

Jordan specializes in agile change management, engagement management, and Professional Scrum adoptions.
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