Some previous work on Project and General Management

An abiding problem of management is the ascendancy in managers minds of urgency over importance. The urgent always grabs attention and resources. It takes a great manager to resist that pressure. If the manager cannot do that he is doomed to continually undertake small firefighting (tactical) operations whilst the big (strategic) picture goes to hell in a handcart. This formulae was designed to give Police project managers a tool to help them hold a sensible balance between trivial but urgent matters and the vitally important issues.

 

Task Urgency Dominance

This monograph was issued to Project managers in the Operational Research Department of the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary (Police) in 1980 and later in a modified format to MBA students in Luxembourg around 1998. It just shows that such issues do not change much over the years. A more complex version of the algorithm was incorporated into my personal project control system software.

Introduction

A major problem for modern senior management is the pressure on such managers to deal with urgent matters, however trivial, before important matters. The result of this pressure is that important matters frequently do not get their due attention until they also become urgent. You then get the worst of all worlds, an important matter that needs to be dealt with urgently.

Important matters by their very nature tend to be of the more complex variety. The secondary effect of this urgency dominance is that not only do important matters get delayed, but also when they are dealt with, due to the resultant time pressure, they receive insufficient resource for the proper deliberations that those matters deserve.

Police force managers in particular are prone to these problems because of the underlying 'action man' ethos. Police managers (in the UK) tend to gain more kudos from being thought of, by their subordinates and peers, as 'real bobbies' than being effective managers of large modern organisations.

In general as one goes up the rank / management level scales the selection as to which tasks to deal with in the limited time available should shift towards dealing with the important problems over the urgent incidents. Naturally delegation is a related expertise here, as subordinates should be dealing with many of the more trivial urgent matters.

The objective of this note is to provide a tool to Project Managers (and indeed any line manager) to justify dealing with important tasks even when there is 'popular' pressure to move their attention to more urgent but more trivial activities. With luck it will provide managers with a justification tool, or maybe even a criticism shield, to allow them to deal with both urgent and important matters in a professional manner whatever the ill conceived popular pressure might be.

The ideas promoted here are encapsulated in our project management system.

The questions

Most managers have more claims on their time than they can fulfil, they therefore need to focus their attention on the highest priority tasks.

In my system you only have to ask three questions of each presented task in order to decide on its priority, These are: -

    1. · What is the scale of effect of the matter? (i.e. does it effect one person or a nation)
    2. · What is the degree of effect of the matter? (i.e. is it a minor inconvenience or life threatening)
    3. · What is the urgency of the matter? (i.e. Does it fail if it is not done today or could we delay it for 6 months without repercussions)

The first two questions relate to the importance of a task and the last naturally to the urgency. I have graded these in what is called anchored likert scales. That sounds complicated but it is not.

Likert scales grade subjective decisions into seven groups. The reason for this is that psychologists have shown that most people cannot differentiate more that seven categories at any level, scales which are apparently more discriminatory are just fooling you. The label 'anchored' merely means that each number 1 - 7 has a descriptive label. See below: -


Scale of Affect.

1 Affects only one employee / customer / product item
2 Affects small group of employees / customers / product items within a department
3 Affects large group of employees / customers / product items within a department
4 Affects one whole range of employees / customers / product items within a department
5 Affects all of one department
6 Affects multiple departments
7 Affects whole organisation

 

Degree of Affect

1 Minor irritation
2 Debilitating
3 Wounding
4 Severe incapacity
5 Irreparable damage
6 Permanent severe incapacity
7 Financially calamitous / Personally deadly

 

Urgency

1 No real timescale
2 Action this year
3 Action this month
4 Action this week
5 Action in three days
6 Action tomorrow
7 Action today

The importance scales (scale of effect and degree of effect) raise problems for western morality. A minor problem for a mass of people is normally judged as more serious for a nation/company/organisation than a very serious result for one person.

In reality a prime minister might well be justified in considering that a minor ailment which stopped a million people from going to work for a week should be considered more important for the national economy than the death of one worker (provided it was not an election year). This type of decision is very hard and the objective of this instrument is to give managers the tools to make such decisions and to defend them.

The descriptive anchors mentioned above could of course change depending on the organisation. It is a matter of personal judgement whether the importance scale and degree ratios correspond to the manager's common sense judgement. For instance in the above example:-

· A debilitating effect(2) to all of one department (5)
-

Is considered as serious as

· Irreparable damage(5) to a small group of employees / customers / product items within a whole department (2)

Normally these can be fine tuned with experience. They do however force the attentions of the manager to consider that for the overall good, minor affects on a large number of persons / products etc should be given similar weight to major affects on a single person / product.

In western society this form of thinking tends to go against the grain. That is why minor problems affecting the majority often defer to major problems affecting a few. Also we some times weigh a major bad effect as more worthy of attention than a major good effect. Whether these views are right or wrong is a moral, financial, professional or even a political judgement. You can tweak the scales to suit your own sensibilities. It is not part of this approach to make absolute moral judgements just to give you a rough and ready tool to prioritise your work

 

Back to the Evaluation

With the answers to just the three questions above it is very easy for managers at any rank/position to prioritise their work and allocate their scarce time resources between the competing task claims.

At the easiest level you could just make a priority decision by simply multiplying the three scales together. To be quite honest that would be a perfectly good result and a lot better than the more common subjective unthinking approach to work allocation.

However as you might have expected, I have tweaked that simple formula a little. This was to incorporate the responsibilities of the more senior ranking managers that requires them to focus on more important issues. So I have added a little something called a weighting factor. What this does is move the emphasis towards dealing with more important matters the further you are up the management/rank hierarchy.

The formula for Task Priority has been entered into the department computers and any programmable calculators. As I said earlier the form is:-

IMPORTANCE = Scale of effect * Degree of effect
Therefore with the rank weighting :-

PRIORITY = (Importance * Rank Weighting) * Urgency

However don't worry about the maths it is all in the computers or the calculators. But for those that want to check out our views the weighting factors are roughly: -

Rank / Management Level

1 Sergeant / Forman
2 Inspector / Workshop Supervisor
3 Chief Inspector / Department Manager
4 Superintendent / Divisional Manager
5 Chief Superintendent / Company Group Manager
6 Assistant Chief Constable / Vice President
7 Chief Constable / CEO / Company President


The corollary of this is that certain levels of priority should only be dealt with at certain rank/management levels but that is an area of management science that I do not want to get into in this relatively simple explanatory note on task priorities

Practical

To recap in order to calculate the priority of any proposed task, just enter answers to the three following questions (using the anchored scales above) :-

  • · What is the scale of effect of the matter?
  • · What is the degree of effect of the matter?
  • · What is the urgency of the matter?

Then the computer system (or if you like the simple formulae above) will calculate the task priority for your rank / management position. If any one then asks why you are dealing with task A rather than task B you can say that it has a higher priority and blame John Hulbert.

 

Anecdote.

When I was a young Inspector I was project manager of one of the earliest police personnel computer installations. In that position you work closely with the client officers. Also being a psychologist by training I guess that I tended to observe human nature more closely. The man in charge of the personnel department was a Chief Superintendent (Senior Manager) who was quite conscientious but in my view not too good on delegation. He prided himself on the fact that people could contact him with their problems from all over a very large police force area.

In this scenario there was an important report to be reviewed on civilian personnel establishments. It sat on the top of the Chief Supers in-tray when he came in early to start work. He used to arrive before 8am in order to get some quality work done before the phones started, but people soon rumbled that and started calling earlier. He would start his day with the intent of concentrating on the important document in the early 'quiet' hours of the day. Before long a call would come with some query and he would start to deal with that, leaving the dossier. Often before he had finished the first interruption another would come by phone or visit and he would set aside the first interrupting task to deal with the second and so forth.

He operated what in computing is called a LIFO stack. That is the last task into his system was the first one out. By mid-day his 'important' dossier was about six or seven down the line as the more 'urgent' jobs took precedence on his time. In order to clear his desk he often worked late and as the other offices became vacant, the interruptions slowly reduced and his was able to gradually decant his way down his stack of work. In nearly a month of observation he never got anywhere near his 'important' dossier. In the end, in desperation he took it home with him at the weekend because a decision deadline was looming. This manager obviously had more professional management problems than simply task prioritisation but a simple scheme such as that recorded above would have moderated his burden and that of his probably long suffering wife.

(c) John Hulbert 1980