BRM Tools: Priority Ladder – is it really important?

It’s our number one priority. This is critical. We must do this.

We’ve all been in situations where the joke that the priority is just the last thing added to the list is appropriate but what is the BRM able to do in these situations? The first thing I usually come back to is that if something is really important then money will be found. If there isn’t any money available then that’s the first question to start exploring. The next thing to look at is what does the priority list achieve. If it is about making the best use of finite resources, then money comes back into the equation as you can increase the resources available.

As true as I’ve often found these things to be, it doesn’t entirely get rid of the conversations about what the priority of the request is against other things. It is in these situations that I believe that the Priority Ladder approach can become useful. There are two aspects to this tool and they can be used together or independently.

Part 1 is the Higher-ranking or Lower-ranking exercise.

Part 2 is where you poke at things to understand what could change to impact the importance.

Let’s explore these in a bit more detail.

Higher or Lower (Part 1)

The key with this approach is to get people to think, on their own (to avoid groupthink), of the things that they want to achieve. Having a breadth of things helps people to start to see the opportunities in the bigger picture and also start to see if there are synergies or dependencies between the ideas.

Stage two is to then try to remove any bias on the ideas by mixing them. Watch out for people doing things that make their ideas stand out either by the choice of writing, the colour of the paper or being quick to say “that’s mine”. It’s hard to do but it’s an important step.

Then you can start to take the ideas in turn. Take the first one and use that as the zero mark. Then each subsequent idea is taken and looked at relative to the last one. As you work through the ideas you start to position them in the ladder asking if it is more or less important than the idea that you have just discussed.

You’re not looking for decisions or a verdict on the viability of the idea or activity just if it is something that you would do before or after the last one that you looked at.

Finally when you have a complete ladder then you can start to look at the things at the top, the middle cluster and the things at the bottom. You want to look for a sense that this feels about right. If any anomalies that feel like their in the wrong place then discuss why that may be.

One thing to remember is that priorities today will change tomorrow. No list is ever complete, new things will come up, things will change. The purpose here is to build a shared consensus on the important things as a group, rather than letting one voice dominate.

The advantage of this approach is you don’t need to decide what is number one and what isn’t rather you look at things relative to each other and decide which one you will do first. When it is done you can decide what to do next.

Experience shows that things that are lower down the priority order can still be picked up in the slack time between other work and this approach gives people an idea of the importance of the things that they’re thinking about and nothing is excluded.

Remember – it’s a model, so it helps you to be less wrong. It isn’t the answer that matters as much as the discussion that takes place.

All change – Part 2

The second part of the priority ladder is thinking about what would have to happen for the order of the items to change. This isn’t about predicting the future as that’s impossible, but it is being aware of what signals you want to be looking out for are. The worst thing you can do is to set a plan in stone and assume that nothing will change.

Organisational agility isn’t just about having an agile methodology for your delivery, but about being able to see the situations changing around you and being able to respond. However, that response needs to be considered. As humans we have an action bias – our desire to do something often means our willingness to sit and wait is harder even though it can be the right thing. Just as it’s difficult to be told everything is a priority, so it is also far from ideal to constantly be lurching from one focus to another.

Start this stage by again getting people to think as individuals of the factors that could influence a change. This list could be internal or external factors. Examples could be the ability to hire the skills you need, product launches by a competitor, disruption in the supply chain, or a shift in funding available. It can be useful to get people to think about the factors which they will be able to see even if they can’t control as well as those which will only be evident after they have occurred. For those that are post-event observations then it may be beneficial to put them to one side for this exercise but acknowledge their existence.

Once you’ve agreed on a list of factors that you believe you’re able to observe in advance then start to work through the priority ladder and see what impact they could have on the list. There are three things you’re looking for:

  • Which items will become more important?
  • Which items will become less important?
  • Which items are impacted by the greatest number of factors?

That final point is important as it shows you the areas that you have the greatest risk associated with their delivery. Knowing this then helps you to give more focus to securing the value early and getting things delivered but also where you need to keep the greatest flexibility within the approach.

The benefit of taking the time to do this exercise is that you are getting people to raise their situational awareness and avoid being the “rabbit in the headlights” when things change. You can’t control everything, you can’t see every change coming, but you can do things to be better prepared. The conversations that take place build a sense of togetherness amongst a team and they start to understand how the priorities for the organisation come together and take shape, as well as a shift in response to what happens next.

Written by

An experienced senior digital business leader with experience of delivering transformative change.

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