I generally try to classify projects into three levels of priority before I consider adding resources to anything on deck: Air, Water, and Food.
In the unlikely event everything classified under Air, Water, and Food is done and behind us, I might move onto the next realm of importance, but generally, if it’s not Air, Water, or Food, it is going to get a very low priority,
I’m stealing broadly from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but suppose you were an astronaut in orbit and the red light in the capsule appeared. How do you set priorities? Largely by survival.
Without air, you have seconds to live.
Without water, you have days to live.
Without food, you have weeks to live.
Everything after that is discretionary.
Whether you are setting high-level goals or project priorities, try ranking your options into these categories.
What is Air?
In a services business, it might be customers.
In an e-commerce business, it might be secure uptime.
In product development, it might be an innovative, competitive technology solution that is worth marketing because it will surprise and delight customers.
“Air” initiatives are the items on your to-do list that if not attended to immediately may cause a business to be gone very soon. Sometimes they are obvious. Take the examples above. If you don’t protect your customers in a services business, you don’t have a business. If you don’t have a product worth selling, you don’t have a business. If you are selling online and you are not safely live to the world, you don’t exist.
It’s relatively easy to see the obvious examples of Air, but sometimes they are counterintuitive. I often write about People, Products, Profits—in that order. Are people, or the talent that drives your company, Air? The answer is absolutely yes—we cannot accomplish much of anything without the right team, but none of us has the unlimited capacity to hire everyone we want. It is precisely because talent is Air that it takes discipline to know which people you need now and which may have to wait. Your budget will always create some constraints, as will the availability of people you wish to recruit and the forced ranking of your priorities.
Of all the choices you make, Air should be the least subjective. When you feel it leaving the room, you know you are doing something vitally wrong. Don’t let Air get away from you, or the next two points won’t matter.
What is Water?
In a services business, it might be tailoring what is offered to individual customer needs.
In an e-commerce business, it might be sufficient variety of differentiated listings to attract and retain customers.
In product development, it might be the process management that lets you create a dependable schedule.
“Water” initiatives are what you need to build the business once you are certain the Air around you is sustainable. These are the projects in your organization that are essential, the ones that cannot be postponed unless there is an Air-eliminating crisis to address. Of course, if there are too many crises in an organization, you will never get to Water, and that will only keep you going slightly longer than losing Air.
Consider the example of product development: Air is ideation, the vision that will set your offering apart from those of your competitors. Water is the ability to deliver it. If you can’t create a project plan and product development schedule that you can actualize within your financial means, the concept won’t have any value. You need to be demanding about Water, but you also need to be realistic.
How important is knowing Water when you see it? Take the metaphor to its extreme: Suppose you have an abundance of Air, but you can’t get to Water. How long will you last? That’s how important Water is. It’s not Air, but it’s not far behind. Use discipline when you deem something Water. Everything that isn’t Air can’t be Water, or you’ll never have enough.
What is Food?
In a services business, it might be referrals, reputation, or word of mouth,
In an e-commerce business, it might be reliable customer service.
In product development, it might be the parsing of features and benefits to plan generational updates that improve upon each other.
“Food” initiatives allow you some discretion. You can live a relatively long time with just Air and Water, so you get to decide what constitutes Food and how to procure it creatively. If you make a mistake anointing something Food, perhaps prioritizing one product feature over another, if you’re wrong it probably isn’t the end of the world. That doesn’t mean you can be cavalier about determining your alternatives, but at least you’re out of the realm of immediate time pressure and into a set of choices where course correction is possible, even if you make a sizeable error in judgment.
I often suggest to people that one of the common elements of Food is time. Some people will think time is Air or Water, but a ticking clock is not the same as a clock that is not wound or has no power source. Time is something we all have to navigate, and we never have enough because of the deadlines we establish for ourselves or the demands of meeting customer needs. I prefer to manage time the way a good sports team works the game clock. There is an element of urgency with a game clock, but not desperation. You can use it as a motivational tool, or as a way to outsmart competitors. Time is always critical, but when it is too critical, innovation can take a hit.
Balance the Elements
Have a look at all the conflicting priorities around you. Force yourself to rank them into Air, Water, and Food. Chances are you’ll discover you are trying to solve for Food when you should be trying to solve for Air or Water. That might be why you are going in circles or nowhere at all. I have taken part in some heated constructive conflict about how to classify any given task in an organization, but I have seldom seen the framework for this kind of healthy argument fail to create a productive dialogue.
Agreed priorities are empowering. When you achieve consensus around Air, Water, and Food, you are making critical progress in your team building and goal setting. Measurable success is often lurking in meticulous editing.
Most important, if what you are working on is beyond the scope of Air, Water, Food and you’ve left these priorities behind, stop what you are doing immediately and rethink your course of action. If you haven’t got Maslow working in your corner at that basic level, the battery in your clock may be about to take away all your choices.
Own the clock. Always own the clock.