Pick a Chicken: How to Prioritize and Get More Done
When I was eight, my family moved from the suburbs to a small farm. At some point my mother sent me out for the first time to catch a chicken for dinner. There were perhaps twenty chickens in a fenced pen with no place for them to go, but I made the mistake every rookie predator makes when hunting chickens: I ran in among the birds, trying to grab whichever one was closest.
Chaotic hilarity ensued. Chickens can’t fly very well, but if you run at them, they scatter in a random pattern. I made several attempts, coming up empty-handed each time.
Finally Mom or Dad took pity on me and said, “Pick a chicken. If you don’t pick a particular chicken, they will all get away. Pick one and chase it till you catch it.”
The difference was striking. Once you’ve selected a particular chicken, walking quietly up to it and grabbing it is a simple feat.
This story comes to mind because of a project manager I was chatting with recently. He showed me a list of a couple dozen projects he was managing, all of which were having challenges and behind schedule. I asked about priorities and he said, “All of these projects are vitally important.”
I agreed that they probably were, but then probed deeper to understand what made them important. After a quick review, we decided that the projects fell into one of four categories:
- Safety issues: Bugs or limitations that present a safety hazard
- Mission-critical: Support for a large and expensive strategic initiative that is imminent and time-critical
- Compliance issues: Work to maintain or replace systems that would represent audit findings if the facility were inspected
- Necessary infrastructure: Maintaining existing hardware and software components
None of these categories could be ignored, but the bottom line was that little was getting accomplished because the team was trying to do everything. “Analysis paralysis” was a reasonable summary of the problem. No project could get enough cycles because all the other important projects needed cycles.
This reminded me of the chickens: There was plenty of chasing and frustration, but not a lot of catching.
The project manager and I worked together to triage his list. We identified the five projects that he thought were the most important and time-sensitive. I encouraged him to review that list with his boss, then set expectations that if these were the priorities, some of the other projects were going to be somewhat delayed. The project manager protested at first that none of the projects could be delayed, but I gently pointed out that none of the projects were getting done at present, and eventually he agreed to have the discussion.
I’m not finding fault with the project manager. He was being conscientious about addressing a large number of projects that were each important in their own way. What I did was help him work with his boss to “pick a chicken” so that he could get something done. Once you catch that chicken and get it in the pot, you can pick another one. When you’re overwhelmed, prioritization really does help with progress.