Priority 1.A.i.a…

Listening to the “Meet the Press” interview of President Obama this morning brought back a few memories from working at Alcatel/Rockwell International/Collins Radio Company.

The interviewer was asking a multitude of questions about priorities – questions were coined in the sense that something was important, and another thing was important, and another, and another, too… The President discussed his highest four priorities in his administration, and the interviewer asked, “What about gun control?” The President hadn’t included gun control in his top priorities, and begged off by explaining that he needed input, and that there needed to be a “conversation” about this topic in light of the Connecticut tragedy before his priorities could change. Yes, a political answer… There are priorities, and there are PRIORITIES.

I recall my boss almost thirty years ago coming to my office to tell me that a particular something was my highest priority. An hour later, he returned to tell me to drop everything and get on something new – that something new was now my top priority. I explained with some frustration in my voice at the time that “…without staff resources, I could only do a few things at once.” He explained that there were no resources he could bring to me – that I was the only qualified person to work on these problems. “When are the tasks due?” His answer was, “As soon as possible.”

This behavior repeated itself over the course of the week until on Friday, the boss returned to ask what progress had been made on the first task. I explained that I was working on the new task given to me the just the day before when I was asked to “drop everything”. I asked, “Which task is really my top-most priority?” My boss answered, “Well, they all are.” I followed up with another question that I hoped would clarify his direction, “Which one is genuinely the number one top priority – Priority 1.A.i.a?”

His answer was dumbfounding, “They are all Top Priority 1. There is no second priority, and they are all due today.” So, I realized at that moment that my boss had been put in an impossible position by his boss. By the end of the day on Friday, I had completed the last task given to me the day before to the degree that I could in 24 hours, and the first task given to me on Monday. In my judgement, it was better to finish something than half finish everything (and finish nothing at all).

Before getting back to the President’s conundrum, I want to remark about how my boss came to me with direction – there were few boundaries to frame the deliverable – worse, there were few details to express the pertinent elements in the problem – just a conversation with someone who did not comprehend the problem at hand very well, nor the shape of the possible solutions. I had an epiphany that Friday – my boss was genuinely clueless about my work, and so was his boss (and his boss and so on). And none of these tasks were critical to the success of the company, or they would have come with resources beside my own time. Worse, I realized that the leadership directly above me was strictly focussed on the politics of the problems I was working on, and not on the business impact of the solutions I was asked to provide.

I realized then – in that week, that it was not only critically important to define complex problems properly, but also the deliverable, and also the business impact of the forthcoming solution. Without this detail, it is impossible to prioritize a problem in a field of problems demanding time and resources, and it is impossible to justify the resources necessary to solve a problem, and it is impossible to judge the adequacy or completeness – the quality of a solution. My boss gave me none of this critical information, and I failed to fully accomplish what his boss was demanding of him (and me). Over that weekend, I recall completing the second task given me during the week, and I estimated the business impact of the remaining five tasks given me that week along with other standing tasks in process awaiting completion, and the business impact estimates set the priority of all the remaining tasks I was working on.

That week was a significant lesson in leadership for me:

  • Describe a problem with some detail – eek out nuances of the problem. People must know that YOU understand the problem even if they do not.
  • Estimate the impact of the problem – if left unsolved, and if solved – the opportunity cost and also the return on the investment. You need numbers, and not just subjective language. Combined, this is the total impact. Make it clear that problems are attacked in order of their total impact.
  • Issue a deadline and define the deliverable. Set out critical elements of the solution necessary to gauge its quality.
  • Monitor the progress in a visible way. Your boss needs to see clearly that something is a priority, and also that there is progress being made.

Today, this is all just a matter of common sense for me, but at the time, it was an epiphany.

So, on to the President. What is his Priority 1? I don’t think it is simply the “Fiscal Cliff” – that is far too short-sighted a priority for a president – far too limited in scope and total impact. I think President Obama’s Priority 1 is improving the employment rate and the overall prosperity of the middle class – so that we can all spend our money in our economy – more money than we are spending today. The positive impact of improving the real prosperity of the middle class by more than 2% is about the same as the negative impact to the middle class of “going over the cliff” (also about 2%). No one has put that nuance in public view – only the impact of going over the cliff has been explained to the American people. It is so disappointing that the fiscal cliff seems to be the Priority 1 of Media and Congress, and not the prosperity of the people.

I give barely passing marks to our politicians for explaining the problem, failing marks for presenting the total impact, passing marks for setting a deadline (but for the wrong problem), and failing marks for visibly monitoring progress. Our leaders in Congress don’t  seem to be very good leaders on the whole…

And this past week, Federal employees got a pay raise of sorts when all Federal salaries were “unfrozen”. As unpalatable as this action might be to the average American, it will increase the prosperity of the middle class employees of the largest employer in the country by more than 2%… That might be pretty smart in the grand scheme of things, but it does’t look that way when middle class families are struggling to make ends meet and put dinner on the table, and no one has explained the total impact very well, much less the real problem and its real priority.

Done rambling!


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