Sep 26 2017

How to Manage Priorities When Everything Seems Urgent

Tips from management experts can help IT leaders stay focused on tasks that truly matter.

Regardless of the size of their institution, higher education IT leaders have one challenge in common: the ongoing battle to deploy limited resources for maximum impact amid constant change. Today, it can be tough to identify — let alone act on — the most important task.

Is it strengthening data security, above all else? Delivering an outstanding user experience that attracts students, thereby supporting the bottom line? Developing relationships with campus leaders to ensure IT has a voice in strategic initiatives? Or simply the day-to-day operations that keep IT infrastructure running smoothly?

IT leaders often find themselves pulled in many directions, with every project jostling for a spot on the high-priority list. Resolving this dilemma requires clarity about why a task is important and how it aligns with broader strategic objectives.

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Understand Your Motivation for IT Initiatives

Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez, a project management expert, wrote about prioritization in the Harvard Business Review. He noted that in an organization where he had previously worked, “capacity, not strategy, was determining which projects launched and when.” This strikes me as a situation that’s likely familiar to many of us.

But staff and financial constraints aren’t the only factors that determine whether a department can successfully tackle desired initiatives. Nieto-Rodriguez’s theory? If a manager is risk-averse, he or she is more likely to overburden the priority list. It makes sense: If you’re worried about fending off competitive threats or not responding quickly enough to industry shifts, you’ll want to jump on those items and fix them. That’s laudable, but this approach carries its own risk: getting bogged down in too many concerns at once.

Leaders with higher risk tolerance sit on the other end of the spectrum, Nieto-Rodriguez says. Their ability to leave certain areas alone, at least for a while, lets them focus on a smaller — and more realistic — number of priorities.

Whichever end of the spectrum resonates, the fact remains that most of us have more high-priority items than we can manage, and new ones show up all the time. But being aware of their own risk orientation can help managers understand their motivation to designate a task as a priority and, perhaps, evaluate its urgency more accurately. Then, of course, it’s time to sort through the priorities that remain.

Think Strategically About IT Priorities

One strategy for managing tasks focuses on just that: strategy. Nieto-Rodriguez has created a “hierarchy of purpose” to help managers gain clarity, and the first step is to identify the organization’s larger purpose and strategic vision, because that should be a key driver of departmental priorities.

Moira Alexander, another project management expert, writes in CIO that getting involved in strategic planning is one of the best ways for leaders to identify true priorities. Having this institutional roadmap, she says, “will not only mark the desired destination but also provide additional markers along the way to follow, to help confirm if you are navigating in the right direction.”

Understanding strategic goals from an institutional perspective gives managers a big-picture context they can use to evaluate departmental initiatives. But Alexander recommends digging in further to identify the strategic drivers behind each individual project. Essentially, managers need to understand the “why” behind each priority. On her list of potential drivers: competitive advantage, quality improvements and cost savings or other financial benefits. Often, a single IT initiative in higher education may address multiple drivers (which might be an argument for bumping it up the priority list).

Getting a handle on the ever-expanding list of priorities can help IT leaders regain a sense of control, a benefit that trickles down to employees. When team members have a better understanding of what’s important — and why — they can better prioritize their own areas of responsibility in a way that supports the group mission.

This article is part of EdTech: Focus on Higher Education’s UniversITy blog series.

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