Embracing radical prioritization

By Michael Della Bitta, March 11, 2021.
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Just a year ago, the world of work underwent a seismic shift as a result of the COVID pandemic. DPLA, in some ways, was more ready for this kind of change than other teams — we were already distributed across the country, so we had already built the remote-working muscles needed to get things done during quarantine. And 99% of our operations were virtual as well, leaving essentially the main tangible change to be figuring out how to collect the mail.

And then there were the less immediately obvious, involuntary changes that we felt as much as any other group of people. Childcare became a major issue for many of us. The isolation from our friends and loved ones was deeply felt. Hiring became even more complicated than it already was. Being able to see each other in person was something we all sorely missed.

But today, I want to share with you some of the voluntary changes we made, fairly soon after lockdown. We could have conducted our work in the same manner we have always, but I think some of the new practices we adopted are making us a stronger, more effective organization.

 90 days at a time

The first major change we made was deciding to plan our work in 90-day chunks. 

In the beginning of lockdown, this was born out of necessity. Nobody at DPLA (or elsewhere, for that matter) could predict what the world was going to look like beyond that, and we knew that the landscape was changing and priorities were shifting rapidly. DPLA had previously convened organization-wide meetings to decide on priorities, but we had never framed them with a hard deadline before. You can see our first attempt at that here.

90 days is roughly a quarter, and thinking of our work in terms of quarter-bounded increments seemed to strike the right balance of being large enough to get noticeable things done while avoiding making commitments to delivering work too far into a distant and uncertain future. 

How would we know, three months from now, that those tasks were still the most important things to do? How accurately could we predict the effort needed to accomplish months of work, when we’re starting from scratch and attempting something we’ve never done before? Limiting the scope of our plans eliminated these problems.

As the year wore on, this “90-day plan” became a framework we relied on even more strongly than we ever had before. It gave us a cadence for team meetings, a manner of setting expectations and guarding us from distractions, and an approach that pushed us toward a delivery mindset.

We were able, at the end of every 90-day increment, to look back and realize where we had overcommitted and where we had unavoidable but unforeseen risks, and use those insights to adjust our approach for the next 90-day plan. This empiricism about process and outcomes is a cornerstone of Agile approaches that we’ve used to coordinate technology projects.

Radical prioritization

Of course, the trick to doing these plans correctly is to make sure you’re picking the right work to do. This is far from easy. 

If the team takes on too many tasks, there’s a risk of not making tangible progress on any of them, leaving the organization no further along than when we started. So there needs to be a concerted accounting of what work is potentially on the table, and a process to scope, prioritize, and ultimately reduce the work to a finite and achievable set of tasks. 

Since we’re a small team at DPLA, this is an organization-wide function. Everybody pitches in to help decide what we will collectively work on, and we get collective buy-in before we proceed.

However, this process is a difficult one to undertake. Everybody working at DPLA has a mile-long list of projects we might try, and watching them be sidelined for other work can be painful. Still, we’re never saying “no, not ever” to things that we leave off the 90-day plan, we’re just saying “not now.”

Also, it might make sense to do task X in isolation, but it turns out that if we do Y first instead, it unlocks the possibility of doing Z. So we might decide to postpone X, even though it seems more important than Y.

Lastly, DPLA has big shoes to fill. Many of our colleagues and stakeholders have identified promising areas of work for our team, and when they don’t see progress in those areas, they might think we’re not moving forward quickly enough. We need to be open about what we’re up to to keep everybody on the same page. You can see an example of that here.

When we’re done with this process, we end up with a prioritized list of work, with deliverables we have all agreed to, and a deadline to aim for. It’s go time! 🚀