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January 12, 2021

Radical Prioritization of Work

By IT Revolution

This post is adapted from the Bold Moves You Can Make white paper that appears in the Fall 2020 DevOps Enterprise Journal.

Written by Amy Walters, Dominica DeGrandis,  Jon Moore, Jeffrey Shupack, Michael Nygard, Ross Clanton, Ben Grinnell, and Paula Thrasher


Many large enterprises are experiencing a crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impacts. Remaining relevant and alive requires bold moves that accelerate digital, Agile, and DevOps transformation efforts that may already be underway.

Enterprise leaders can use the crisis to be bold and drive their transformation forward to position themselves for a successful future. Avoid the urge to revert back to traditional ways of working, which would temporarily disrupt or even fully derail your transformation.

Leaders should assess the nature of the crisis to their business, define a transformation outcome, make the case for change, and then use the focus and sense of urgency generated by the crisis to drive specific, bold DevOps moves.

For some companies, the pandemic crisis is a structural one that will change the nature of their business model. The crisis may be temporary or it may be permanent, and it may impact a company’s digital transformation directly or indirectly. Before adopting your bold move, as a leader you will need to connect the DevOps transformation to the business imperative and explain how the benefits will help address the challenges at hand.

Consider the following bold actions you can make that will have a positive impact on your DevOps transformation:

  • The radical prioritization of work.
  • Increase investment in transformation.
  • Demonstrate the DevOps way.
  • Modernize your technical stack.

In this article, we will focus on the first action: Radical Prioritization of Work. 

Radical Prioritization of Work

Crisis situations abound with changing priorities.

For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, as shelter-in-place policies occurred, training professionals quickly prioritized virtual training capabilities. Budget cuts at some companies resulted in decisions to retain full-time employees over contractors, which spurred decisions to prioritize up-skilling the remaining workforce. Financial institutions prioritized activities to ensure mortgage solvency. Retail businesses suddenly needed to prioritize online and pick-up only–based models.

For most companies, these new priorities were disruptions to earlier planned activities, budgets, and focus.

When it comes to prioritization during a global crisis, we address three key areas:

  1. Identify and align with the top priority.
  2. Limit work in process.
  3. Make priorities visible.

1. Identify and Align with the Top Priority

Ruthless prioritization is always a good way to keep you competitive, but during a crisis it’s a matter of survival. To juggle multiple things at the same time, one must spread effort in different directions. The more priorities in action, the less attention each one receives. Hence, a decision to do “A” is really a decision to delay “B.” When “A” must get done above everything else, “B” needs to take a back seat or be relegated to either the trash bin or the backlog.

Prioritizing the one most important thing means letting go of some very good opportunities. For example, getting a book published while working a full-time job often means giving up leisure time on weekends and vacations. Completing the top priority calls for a radical focus on only the top priority. (See image above.)

The word “priorities” is really a delusion. By definition, “priority” is a singular word. The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It meant the very first or prior thing. Only in the early twentieth century did we pluralize the term priority and start talking about “priorities.” When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. Therefore, it behooves us to brutally cut cruft and also some good opportunities by saying “No” to almost everything.

During normal times, your organization may want to make many small, survivable bets. Sometimes that results in competing or conflicting priorities for developers and operations, who are further down the flow of work. A crisis is not the time to let a thousand flowers bloom. It is the time to prioritize ruthlessly. This is vitally important from a cost perspective, but it also allows you to focus your organization on the most important outcomes. From the very top, CEOs should identify the most important outcome necessary for the company to thrive and mobilize the organization to execute it. Get rid of the anchors that drag your teams down. One enterprise leader shared their experience making strong executive priorities during the current crisis:

We needed to mobilize quickly against our digital priorities (end to end) to respond to the market changes. Once stores closed, our digital business increased and we needed to invest in our supply chain and logistics areas to respond—not an area where we typically move with speed. Getting clarity on priorities from our executive team cleared the way for teams to execute. We also had our CEO say that some of the ways of working during this time would continue to be our ways of working going forward, specifically mentioning speed of decision-making.

2. Limit Work-in-Process

A better understanding of the impacts from too much work-in-process (WIP) can inform a decision-making approach during times of uncertainty. Even in normal times, people will fill all available work capacity just like closet space. During a crisis, everyone wants to be seen doing something, and WIP will explode when you can least afford it.

To help staff avoid taking on more work than they have the capacity to complete, consider the speed of a supercharged Corvette with a V8 engine and 650 horsepower. On an open highway, the muscle car can reach 120 mph. But on a clogged freeway, it doesn’t matter how big the engine is. The Corvette can only go as fast as the Toyota Camry in front of it. Provide your organization with an open highway to pave a speedy route to get the top priority across the finish line. This means diligently canceling zombie projects and pet projects, along with projects that are “on the bubble”.

One Fortune 100 company with over two hundred thousand employees was in the middle of a major strategic initiative when the COVID-19 pandemic started. Suddenly, many other activities were seen to increase risk. The Chief Digital Officer declared a universal “stop work”—every single project, no matter what state it was in, had to pause. Criteria were established. Work had to stop unless it was:

  • mission critical to complete the strategic business initiative,
  • mission critical to make the pivot to remote work possible, or
  • critical sustainment work for payroll, operations, supply chain, security, or other core business “keep the lights on” related (that could not be delayed).

In very limited cases, additional exceptions were allowed for projects that did not meet these criteria. Exceptions were granted once critical capacity was understood to allow a few additional projects to continue without impacting mission-critical work. The criteria for exception list programs were:

  • transformation critical to achieve cost savings (if ROI was high and quickly realized), or
  • production ready within two weeks (e.g., current phase could be quickly finished).

The company simply couldn’t complete both the strategic initiative and the pivot to virtual work unless all other work was put on hold. An eight-week stoppage of all other work ensued. People had to pivot. By stopping everything that was not part of the strategic initiative, teams were freed up to accelerate the virtual experience. Even though the stoppage meant idling a few developers and product owners, the work-from-home experience improved dramatically because of it. The infrastructure team was able to remove the need for the frustration-inducing VPN, which would have taken much longer with the IT staff spread across all the idled projects.

When priorities change daily, use the turbulence of the present to change key prioritization rules to reshape and restore the organization’s focus.

3. Make Priorities Visible

One reason people take on too much WIP is uncertainty about their actual priorities. “Should we work on the latest initiative from Line of Business A or Line of Business B? Each line of business VP says their line of business is the top priority, so I guess we need to do both?” Making the top priority visible to everyone is key so that employees are reminded of the CEO’s and top management’s position and have the information they need to keep focused on the most important work.

Prioritization of work is a decision in time, thus management must communicate it to those affected. Use multiple channels to keep the priorities present and available. Verbal communication of changes to priorities is good. Visual communication of changes to priorities increases the channels of information and is especially valuable for visual learners. This helps people hear and see the firm’s priorities, which will guide them as they cope with the unpredictable.

To read more about the bold actions you can make to have a positive impact on your DevOps transformation, please read the full white paper here.

- About The Authors
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IT Revolution

Trusted by technology leaders worldwide. Since publishing The Phoenix Project in 2013, and launching DevOps Enterprise Summit in 2014, we’ve been assembling guidance from industry experts and top practitioners.

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