Management Communication: Priority Exceptions

Constantly-changing priorities and surprise projects erode team morale and leave everyone unsure of if they’re working on the most important thing, or if they’ll ever get to finish anything. While being adaptable and flexible is critical for most teams, it’s always important to have some kind of roadmap and approach to prioritization and planning work. There are many different ways to plan and prioritize your work; what’s important is that when priorities change — and they will change — you acknowledge that change and adapt quickly.

If you don’t clearly acknowledge the change in plans, your team can start to question the point of the plan in the first place. They’ll start to wonder if they are expected to do this new thing and the old thing, or just the new thing, or since the new thing is not in the plan, perhaps they should actually ignore it? Don’t leave room for interpretation. Clearly set expectations and make sure you communicate unambiguously what is being asked of them. Sometimes they need to be given clear “permission” to really work on this new thing, and delay or drop the old thing.

On my teams, we use a process we call a “Priority Exception” to clearly address a major change in our plans. This process is used when we had a plan of work, and for some reason something not on that plan jumps to the next most important thing for us to work on. The goal is to acknowledge the change, clearly communicate the impact this change will have on existing work, and critically; highlight why it is so important that it should disrupt our plan. We use this template to ensure the right information is always included, and distribute the details to everyone on the team (and any other relevant stakeholders).

What new thing is happening?

Right up front, we outline the new work at a high level so that we all know what we’re talking about. We link out to our project management system or code tracker for further details. This section includes which individuals or teams will be required for the new work.

What existing thing is being delayed?

Next we’ll specify what work we’re putting on hold or slowing down because of this new work, or how we’re creating capacity to work on it. We’ll try to include details on the expected impact of our delay; If we can put a number on it, this is where it goes. Lost revenue? Delayed launch? Losing more users? Be specific.

Why is the new thing more important?

This helps head off questions about why we had to “drop everything” to work on something unexpected. This should clearly demonstrate why the new work is more important or more urgent than the planned work. You should be able to clearly illustrate why it offsets the impact of the delayed work (as detailed above).

How did this come about?

As a form of mini-retrospective, this is a chance to highlight why this work was such a surprise. It’s an opportunity to learn and avoid surprises in the future, or come up with other mitigation strategies, depending on what happened.

Timeline

We set a clear timeline covering any wind-down of current work, transition to the new work, and expected completion or progress milestones. Since Priority Exceptions often come with an external deadline, we’ll make sure that is clearly communicated as well.

Priority Exceptions are a useful, lightweight tool for communicating changes in priorities, and for learning how to reduce priority-thrash over time. Teams have appreciated the clarity they bring to otherwise-potentially-confusing times, and the clear permission they give to delay work in favor of something more important.

What do you think?