The Bizzle

"Saving your ass since 1999"

Wait until they forget; or the art of prioritisation

I’ve been meaning to write about prioritisng for a while, but I’ve been beaten to it by fine posts from Tim Bratton and Tom Kilroy. I must have missed the memo from in house lawyer HQ.

But it’s one of my big issues at the moment, as this little rant demonstrates. When everyone tells you that their work is urgent, how does the in house lawyer decide what should be done first?

Well, my fellow in house blawgers make excellent points about the way that it can be done objectively. But decisions about prioritisation are often made in less formal ways, so I think that there’s room for some guidance on how to tell what’s really important.

So, drawing on my extensive frontline experience of office politics, I present the Bizzle rules for prioritisation:

1. Can I get fired? This is the top consideration when deciding how to prioritise work – how much trouble will you get in if you don’t do it? In theory, this is aligned with actual business objectives, such as how much money is at stake and what our customers want. In practice, the real question is “Has a director asked for it?”

2. Can I look good? The flip side of the first question, basically. Work out whose good opinion matters most, and put their work at the top of the pile whether they’ve asked you to or not. Delivering stuff early for your boss or your boss’s boss is good, and so is outperforming customer expectations.

3. Is it a hospital pass? There is some work that must be avoided, no matter how urgent the instruction or how high the status of the instructor. Projects that are clearly destined to crash and burn, or requests to advise on a dubious new strategy championed by someone really important, for example. You either have to bury this sort of instruction or delegate it (“I think that this project will really help your profile…). Sometimes self-preservation is all.

4. How nice was the instruction? It’s my firm belief that no bad deed should be allowed to go unpunished, and if you can’t be bothered to ask nicely then I can’t be bothered to do your work. And the more you rant about late delivery, the lower down the list you go. (NB this doesn’t apply if the ranty person is important – see rule 1).

5. What’s the quid pro quo? If you need something from the other person, either now or in the future, then their work needs to be at the top of the pile. Let’s face it, if putting a small-scale software purchase ahead of the company’s newest client will put you first in the queue for a PC upgrade, then it’s a no-brainer. You might call this naked self-interest – I call it market forces.

6. Was I consulted about the deadline? There’s nothing that riles me more than someone committing to a deadline for my work without asking me first. Some people are under the impression that this is a good way to get stuff done, on the theory that no-one can argue with a timescale that the client has already agreed to. This is misguided, because the only person who takes the flak when the deadline is missed is the person that made the promise in the first place – and everyone else will take great pleasure in ensuring that this happens.

7. Is the talk being walked? Sure, everyone says that their work is important and urgent. But if they don’t return your calls when you need some additional info, then you know what the real priority is.

8. Are you being chased? One important way to work out what really needs doing is to wait to see if you get chased. If not, then it clearly wasn’t important in the first place. But remember rule 4 – nice chasing promotes the task, and ranty chasing demotes it.

9. What’s the gullibility score? As in, how likely is the person instructing you to believe your assurances that their work is at the top of your list, even though the original deadline was 6 weeks ago and it’s the third time you’ve said it? Obviously it’s not big or clever to take advantage of colleagues that are too nice or too trusting to call you out on this. But it is necessary.

10. Will it go away eventually? There’s nothing more dispiriting than spending hours on something that you were told was incredibly important to the future of the business, only to be told three months later that our strategic direction has changed and the initiative won’t be progressed. There is a knack to identifying corporate decisions that are likely to be reversed, or assurances about director priorities that turn out not to be true, and the in house lawyer needs to learn that skill.

11. How long can you spin it out? The big unspoken secret of prioritisation is that if you wait long enough people will forget what they asked you to do, or even (if you’re lucky) that they asked you at all. Six months ought to do it in most cases, although some people do have an irritating habit of asking you what happened to their project the day after you deleted their email. Know your enemy, and act accordingly.

If all this makes business look like a cynical game where one player tries to get the other to do some work, and the other tries their best to avoid doing it, well, let’s be honest about it and acknowledge that it often is. So next time I’ll write about the in house lawyer’s strategies for when he’s on the other side of that contest.

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5 responses to “Wait until they forget; or the art of prioritisation

  1. Steven Mather February 13, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    So true.

    In private practice, priority is given to

    1. Big clients (ie ftse clients, ones that pay lots every month.
    2. Clients with unreasonable demands, or shouty ones.
    3. Clients the boss shoots, golfs etc with
    4. Clients that pay
    5. Normal clients
    6. Clients that don’t pay.

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  3. twostepsjobs February 14, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    It’s a great post. I think it applies to all industries not just in house law. I pass a lot of requests down and think point 4 is key. It doesn’t take any more time to ask nicely. Hard to avoid self interest and not to prioritise the jobs you enjoy though rather than those that you know are more pressing!

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  5. travisthetrout February 16, 2011 at 9:06 pm

    Great list. Enjoyable read and very true. I prioritise in a similar manner only with the extra addition of clients ranked by importance (as listed by Steven). I follow very strict guidelines – Believe me you have to have the art of prioritisation nailed when you work for near 40 solicitors all saying their work is important and urgent.

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