The 4 productivity pillars - investing where it matters

There are many ways to work on productivity; but just like a building is as stable as its foundation, productivity boils down to a set of four pillars:  

  1. Task management: how you collect and organize what needs to be done.
  2. Prioritization: how you decide what to work on first.
  3. Time management: how to structure your day to get the most done.
  4. Focus: how to reduce distractions to maximize the goals accomplished.
4 productivity pillars: task management, time management, focus, prioritization
The 4 productivity pillars

Basically, all the productivity systems out there will fit into one of these four principles; and so without investing the right effort and energy where it matters, productivity can quickly turn into a far-fetched dream. But if you and your team do spend the time putting together a solid plan for each one of these four pillars, you should be well on your way to productivity galore!

In this article, we look at one pillar in particular, #2: prioritization, and what work prioritization tools can be used to improve on the process!

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What is task prioritization?

Task prioritization is about choosing the order in which tasks should to be completed, based on a number of factors that determine the importance of these tasks.

What are the prioritization techniques in Agile?

We rarely get to complete every task and project on our list, and as Seth Godin says: “infinity is a trap”, so we prioritize! But being incredibly efficient at doing things that don’t matter much is no place to be, so we use productivity systems that center on prioritization.

Here, we take a look at 6 work prioritization tools that go well with Agile teams (and teams in general), but of course there are more!

Eisenhower matrix (urgent vs. important)

Eisenhower Matrix quote from 1954
Eisenhower's matrix

The Eisenhower Matrix is named after Dwight D. Eisenhower - an army general who made tough decisions on a daily basis while choosing the tasks to focus on. Thanks to the Eisenhower principles of planning, prioritizing, delegating, and scheduling, we can organize priorities.

The Eisenhower matrix works by listing all activities and projects you feel you have to do, and placing them in one of the 4 quadrants.

  • Quadrant 1: urgent and important
  • Quadrant 2: important, but not urgent
  • Quadrant 3: not important, but urgent
  • Quadrant 4: neither important nor urgent
Eisenhower Matrix has four quadrants - importance vs. urgency
4 quadrants of the Eisenhower matrix

When we know which activities are important and which are urgent, we can manage to clear enough time to do what’s needed - as opposed to focusing on urgent activities (that aren’t as important). We then find ourselves moving from firefighting to growth.

Eisenhower Matrix - important vs. urgent activities
Important vs. urgent activities

For a good playbook on how to set up your Eisenhower matrix, this is a useful Atlassian article!

Eat that frog (biggest, most important task)

According to Mark Twain, “if the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long”.

Prioritization productivity principle: eat that frog
Eat that frog prioritization technique

Your frog is your biggest, most important task, and the item on your to-do list you have no motivation to do. At all. So, how do you go about it? Simple; you only move on to other tasks when you’re done with the frog!

For an overview of your tasks, and similarly to the Eisenhower grid, you can divide your to-do list in 4 categories:

  • Things you don’t want to do, but need to 🐸
  • Things you want to do and need to
  • Things you want to do, but don’t need to
  • Things you don’t want to do, and don’t need to

This productivity principle was made popular by Brian Tracy, then some productivity systems went even further, advocating three frogs instead of one.

So what do you do when you have more than one important thing to achieve for the day? You tackle the biggest one first.

Pareto principle (80/20 rule)

The Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule) was introduced in 1906 by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, best known for the Pareto efficiency concept. The latter states that in an economic state where resources cannot be reallocated, it is inevitable that at least one individual will be worse off when another is better off.  

80-20 Pareto efficiency rule
Pareto principle of 80-20 for prioritization

You might think of the 80-20 rule as simple cause and effect: 80% of outcomes (outputs) come from 20% of causes (inputs). So, if 80% of your company’s revenue comes from 20% of your customers, you might be better off focusing on those 20% and marketing specifically to them.

Fundamentally, the 80-20 rule is about knowing what your best assets are, and using them to bring about maximum value. In most cases, 80% of the consequences of doing something come from 20% of the causes; and so when it comes to prioritizing, forget about the 80 and focus on the 20 which is sure to produce results!

RICE (reach, impact, confidence, effort)

backlog prioritization tool: RICE
RICE prioritization technique for backlog

RICE is one of the most popular techniques for prioritizing product backlogs; it uses metrics such as reach, impact, confidence and effort, to calculate priority scores for each item in the backlog.

Developed by Intercom, the RICE framework is mostly used by product management teams when prioritizing features as they create their product roadmap. This backlog prioritization method helps remove bias from grooming meetings.

For more on RICE, this is a good article.

WSJF (Weighted Shortest Job First)

Prioritization technique: WSJF
WSJF prioritization model

Weighted Shortest Job First (WSJF) is a prioritization model that allows you to calculate the financial impact (cost of delay) of not finishing a task or failing to implement a solution sooner than later. This prioritization technique is designed to help speed up the delivery of value, especially in large projects with big issue queues and long waiting times!

To calculate the Cost of Delay and WSJF score, we assign four metrics to our priorities - business value, time criticality, risk reduction and estimated size.

For more on WSJF, here’s another article!

Using metrics to calculate a final priority score for each and every single backlog item is a way to ensure you make data driven decisions, especially when prioritizing more complex work! Question remains; who decides on what metrics to use and who gets to vote on priority scores?

Priority Planning Poker (inclusive prioritization)

Priority Planning Poker is a great way to get everyone on the team to equally contribute to the work prioritization process by removing bias through voting. The fundamentals are quite simple.

  • The moderator (session admin) leads the game
  • The team votes on metric values for every item that gets introduced (based on whatever prioritization technique is agreed upon (could be RICE, WSJF, ICE and so on)
  • The final results are then accepted, or votes can be retaken
  • The game ends after 1-2 hours, otherwise people lose focus
Jira prioritization tool and Jira priority planning poker
Priority Planning Poker for Jira backlog prioritization

Priority Planning Poker can speed up the prioritization process session, offer all stakeholders a chance to contribute, highlight external opinions, and bring some fun into this world!  

For more on Jira Planning Poker, and how you could set it up for your team, check out this article.

The case for inclusive prioritization and aligning on priorities

As we transition into a future with inclusion at the center of productivity, teams with a deep culture of prioritization will stand apart from those that don’t.

Actually, teams that fail in their prioritization process will be running around in circles, keeping busy, but making less of an impact, or learning.

How to improve prioritization?

When choosing priorities, how do we make sure that the decision taken is unanimous across the team? Is it ever? And what if the HiPPO (‘Highest Paid Person’s Opinion’) decided on behalf of everyone else? How do you expect a team to feel like they matter?

How can inclusive prioritization help you avoid prioritization traps?

Inclusion is not about finding ways to fit people into existing structures, but rather it’s about innovating on structures that are able to include different people, different teams, different stakeholders.

Some of the prioritization traps you could avoid by using inclusive prioritization:

  1. Prioritizing tasks too quickly
  2. Making everything about fighting fires
  3. Always saying yes to everything
  4. Getting swayed by distractions
  5. Forgetting that numbers don’t always showcase innovative work
  6. Changing priorities often

Strategic decision-making can easily become an efficient group activity if you’re using the right prioritization tool; voting works in the bigger scheme of things.

Turning your backlog prioritization sessions into an opportunity for everyone to collaborate and enjoy themselves as they come together as an organization, not only tackles one of the productivity pillars; it would be fair to say it tackles them all.