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Sample Chapter: Managing Priorities

This is a sample chapter from Harry Max’s book Managing Priorities: How to Create Better Plans and Make Smarter Decisions. 2024, Rosenfeld Media.

Chapter 1: The Missing Ingredient

It was autumn of 2014 in the Northwest, and the first time I’d been to Tacoma, Washington. This wasn’t an obvious hotel for a corporate workshop—not boutique-y at all—more like the “ranch-style, you-could-be-any where” type. The breakfast room had community tables draped with synthetic white tablecloths, so writing a to-do list on them with my Space Pen was out of the question.

Staring back at me through the glass sneeze guard were scrambled eggs, floppy bacon, oily sausages, and partially cooked hash browns. I set the halves of my bagel on the toaster conveyor belt, round-side down. Another day, another hotel breakfast.

I was hopeful that the 21st Century Leadership workshop I was here to attend would be a good change of pace. I’d been sent to Tacoma by Rackspace, the San Antonio–based cloud-computing company where I’d been working as VP of Product & Experience Design for several years. The senior leadership team (SLT) had suggested that this conference, and perhaps some time away from corporate headquarters, could do me some good.

By this point, Rackspace had outgrown its scrappy startup origins, but it was still a far cry from the behemoth it is today as I write these words: a company that posts over $3 billion in annual revenue and has over 6,500 employees working in over a dozen locations around the globe.

My mind wandered back four years prior to this conference, to when I was lured to Texas from California, the only place I’d lived and worked since high school, by my friend and former colleague, Mark, who would soon turn out to be my boss.

“Take a long weekend,” Mark had insisted as we sat upstairs at Red Rock Coffee in Mountain View in 2010, about a mile from Google headquarters. “Check out the Castle. Meet Lanham, the CEO, and Lew, the president. See for yourself. It’ll be fun.”

“The Castle?” I scratched my head. “Let me think about it.”

Two weeks later, Mark picked me up at the San Antonio airport. We got off 35, made a right, and drove up to a massive building surrounded by a sea of blacktop. Mark explained that Rackspace was housed in a converted shopping mall, but I had imagined it was a lot smaller. Outside the main entrance, there was a galvanized water tower brandishing the words “Home of Fanatical Support.” Intriguing.

Even with Mark’s earlier download, I was quite unprepared for what was to come when he flashed his badge and the receptionist waved us in. I stepped out of the cool San Antonio air and into the bustle of a corporate amusement park: various flags hung from the 25-foot ceiling as phones rang, computers whirred, and people hustled this way and that. A spiral slide connected the second floor to the ground floor. The people in front of me looked to be hard at work, and yet their smiles and laughter and sense of spirited collaboration made it clear that everybody was having a hell of a lot of fun.

“Inconceivable!” I thought to myself, channeling my inner Vizzini from The Princess Bride (as one does). I knew right then and there I’d be moving to Texas. That is, if they’d have me.

A vibration in my pocket jolted me back to Tacoma. It was Gigi, Rackspace’s VP of Engineering.

“Everything okay?” I asked.

“Not really. Mark is out,” she said, her voice uncharacteristically shaky.

“What do you mean he’s ‘out’?”

“They announced it this morning. They replaced our Mark. Can you friggin’ believe it?”

She interrupted me before I had time to fumble out a response. “Can you come back? We need you here. Now.”

“Sh*t,” I said, not entirely under my breath. My heart sank.

I probably should have seen this coming. Six months earlier, when Lew (the president and Mark’s boss) stepped down, I wondered how long the Rackspace ride would last. Then, a few short months after that, our beloved CEO, Lanham, the living embodiment of Rackspace culture, was unceremoniously ousted by the Board of Directors. 1 It stunk, but leadership changes like this happen sometimes when an organization changes strategic direction or top priorities.

One half of my bagel slid off the conveyer belt in all its mostly toasted glory, taking me back to the matter at hand. “What good will it do?” I asked.

A newfound clarity presented itself in Gigi’s voice. “I don’t know exactly. You keep everybody calm.”

It was an interesting observation, if not a touch ironic. Funny how consuming copious amounts of espresso can help one keep other people calm. “Let me see when I can get a flight.”

In those four minutes, I experienced what Elon Musk, love him or hate him, euphemistically refers to as an “unplanned disassembly. 2 ” Now all our best-laid plans, the decisions they were based on, and the priorities we had stacked on top of one another were all up in the air, spinning wildly like those numbered balls in a novelty bingo machine.

What should we do next? What could we do? How could I help to right the ship? Was it even possible to right it? If Mark couldn’t make it work, how could I, someone not on the SLT, possibly help?

Figuring all of this out was going to take a lot more than a one-person crisis response in a hotel breakfast room. It was going to take a systematic approach, a rigorous process that would make it crystal clear what mattered and what didn’t. It was all about priorities. Fortunately for me, everything I had accomplished up to this point in my career—on purpose and sometimes not—revolved around developing such a system.

I hung up and called the office, informing them that, God willing, I was going to be back at the Castle by the end of the day. I had a job to do.

• • •
For companies and organizations to survive, they need to prioritize. But to thrive, their priorities must mesh like gears to synchronize the work that teams are planning and doing, so they can make progress consistently and predictably. And those teams, in turn, must be composed of individual contributors and front-line managers who are tightly aligned, laser focused, and exceptionally productive.

None of these statements are controversial; chances are you agree with them yourself. However, as soon as you step into the real world, you see how much easier it is to make these pronouncements than to implement them. In too many companies (perhaps yours?), workers are overwhelmed, stressed out, and have a vague sense they are not working on the right things or making enough progress. Teams seem to be working at cross-purposes and juggling too many priority ones (an irony worth thinking about).

The results are sadly predictable. Supposedly, must-do, no-fail organizational goals don’t get started, completed, or resourced adequately. Executives’ pet projects suck up precious resources. And morale—to say nothing of revenue—is well below what it could be. And all throughout the organization, there’s a nagging sense that things could be better. A lot better.

In hindsight, many of these tragic organizational failures are painfully obvious and often perfectly preventable. But what to do? Who has the luxury of hindsight or a huge interest in waiting around until things implode before doing what you can to chart a better course?

How Did We Get Here?

On the surface, there may appear to be many different reasons a company finds itself in utter misalignment. But, in my experience, almost all organizational troubles originate from a single cause: senior executives or administrators and frontline personnel seem to be living in alternate dimensions. Leadership is primarily concerned with figuring out what to do and why. Frontline management and personnel focus on how to pull it off and when.

This dissonance has steep costs: declining performance, eroding market share, crumbling brand reputation, and dwindling value for customers, shareholders, and other critical stakeholders. But the hidden costs may be even more insidious.

Doubling down on the wrong priorities is all but guaranteed to create an endless stream of burnt-out and overwhelmed individuals, no one more so than the new or newly promoted manager. The newly minted manager’s passion and commitment to quality—the very talents that got them noticed in the first place—quickly become casualties of excessive competing interests. Before long, constant demands disconnected from explicit strategy and direction, coupled with an underlying drumbeat to do even more, faster, now, reduce them to an exhausted, reactive shell just looking to get through the day.

Having the right priorities, and the self-discipline to limit those priorities, can offer a way out of this mess. Prioritization is the process of identifying items of any type and arranging them in order of importance, superiority in rank, or privilege. It’s the antidote to accelerating fragmentation, a defense against the infinite distractions that keep individuals, teams, and organizations from operating at peak potential. It’s the missing ingredient in a recipe that’s not quite right. Prioritization was, as you will discover over the course of this book, what helped me contribute to stabilizing the situation at Rackspace and turning things around at other companies since then.

Often when people hear the term prioritization, their mind points to personal productivity gurus and time management hacks. They think of tasks, to-do lists, and other techniques for getting more out of their day. These tips certainly have their place, but they aren’t the focus of this book. My main focus here is on deciding what to consider rather than concrete strategies for getting things done during your workweek (though we will touch on this some).

Prioritization is a lot harder than it might sound. For one, finding good resources on the topic is a challenge. Actionable, how-to information is too often buried deep in the guts of books, blogs, videos, and the like. And when useful information on prioritization is available, it’s usually not identified as such, which makes it hard to find.

In addition, in much of the business world, prioritization is typically the purview of project management, product development, and annual planning. The outcome is that management tends to view prioritization as no more than choosing which projects get funded or which products, services, features, and widgets should be built. In this view, prioritization isn’t a process—it’s a light switch.

Although they may not realize it, many organizations do have access to proven approaches for defining high-quality priorities. There are companies and consultants that specialize in it and powerful methodologies and tools available if you know where to look.

But in this regard, companies are like people: they don’t know what they don’t know. They simply rely on what they’ve done previously, reusing improvised approaches that spit out unrefined “priorities.” The problem isn’t just that they are prioritizing poorly, but that they aren’t even aware it’s the keystone problem to everything else, so they don’t and can’t fix it.

These slapdash priorities, in turn, become the inputs to their financial and operational planning processes. The results, again, are predictable: the lack of rigor and clearly defined objectives invariably leads to resource conflicts that ripple across the organization over time. Perhaps there’s a better way.

My approach, honed over my thirty years in the trenches of Silicon Valley and articulated in this book, is to make the process of prioritizing a first-class citizen. I offer a repeatable process and simple taxonomy for prioritizing anything, as well as including strategies, tactics, techniques, and tools you can use depending on your individual needs. I separate episodic, one-off efforts from periodic and continuous prioritization. Lastly, I look at the important differences between prioritizing for yourself and setting group priorities as a member of a team or a larger organization.

Proper prioritization grants a deep competitive advantage to the people, teams, and companies that master it. Yet, if you’re like most people, you don’t have a great model for doing it. I’m here to help.

Who Is This Book For?

I like to think of this book as a short self-help course for businesses.

Managing Priorities: How to Create Better Plans and Make Smarter Decisions combines real stories, practical tools, and timeless insights to equip anyone interested in becoming a more effective manager or leader with the skills, knowledge, and mindset to prioritize anything, anytime, anywhere. Being able to identify what true priorities are and are not, understanding the process of prioritizing, and learning to recognize the inputs and outputs of successful prioritization are all deeply valuable skills. Use this book to create more impactful plans and make better informed decisions. Use it to do a better job. Use it to lower your stress.

More specifically, though, this book is geared toward new or recently promoted managers and entrepreneurs involved in strategy activation, planning, or resource allocation in companies or organizations, for-profit or not. It’s for people who have recently increased, or want to increase, their scope of responsibility and are not yet overly committed to the status quo and default approaches. It’s also for students of business looking for a helpful primer on management.

The overarching theme of this book is business, regardless of industry. It does not offer domain-specific solutions, methodologies, or protocols for fields such as clinical healthcare, education, emergency response, or the military. Moreover, this book assumes a certain degree of knowledge. It is not meant for those readers seeking an introduction to managing people, projects, money, or data. What it does provide are strategies, tactics, tools, and techniques that are applicable across entire ranges of disciplines—including, most likely, yours. This book, and the processes it describes, can benefit leaders in almost every industry.

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