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Competing Priorities

Competing Priorities

Techniques for prioritizing and managing tasks in alignment with your organization's goals

John K. Borchardt

Dr. Borchardt is a consultant and technical writer. The author of the book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers,” he writes often on career-related subjects.

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In private-sector laboratories, the managers’ goal is to maximize long-term revenues while minimizing costs. To do so, one can use a variety of methods to establish priorities and ensure that the most important projects receive the resources needed to be completed in a timely fashion. This requires establishing priorities, since lab managers’ resources of their own time, staff time and money are limited.

Setting priorities

Lab priorities are set by the overall goals of an organization, using the principle of “cascading goals” (also called goal alignment). This means breaking down the overall goals of the organization into goals for your work group and then into individual goals for staff members. An example from my own work history is given in the sidebar and Figure 1. Priorities for different projects and activities are determined by the profit-making potential of the project, by project deadlines and by your manager.

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Figure 1

The next step is providing the resources needed to achieve the goals of your high-priority projects. These resources include your own time; staff time; laboratory resources of equipment, instrumentation and space; and money to pay for all these.

No more than one project can be your top priority at one moment. I am still amused by a discussion of my five priorities with a supervisor more than thirty years ago. When I walked out of his office he had assigned three of my projects a No. 1 priority. The result of this discussion was of little help to me in allocating my own time and that of my laboratory technicians.

Delegating responsibilities

Never delegate something that is a critical factor to your personal success. Do so and you risk going from managing multiple priorities to managing just one— finding another job. However, lab managers can increase the time they have available for high-priority activities by delegating lower-priority ones, particularly those that can readily be performed by others. Tasks that can be delegated include making business travel arrangements, filing, data entry and other time-consuming tasks easily completed by a staff member.

The above examples are tasks that are time-consuming but not intellectually demanding. Some intellectually demanding tasks can also be delegated. For example, managers and senior-level staff members at an increasing number of laboratories are delegating the often time-consuming responsibility of writing reports and researching technical subjects to contract technical writers. Doing so enables managers to have more time for high-priority planning and review activities. Senior staff members will have more time for actually planning and performing lab work and training others.

Delegating does not mean abandoning the responsibility to monitor progress and intervene when necessary. For example, using computer technology, Peter Gallant, CEO of Kingston, Ontario, biomedical startup Pathogen Detection Systems, tracks everything he delegates. E-mail delegating responsibilities are automatically attached to a task in Microsoft Outlook, assigned as “delegated” and filed under the name of the person to whom the task is delegated (the recipient of the e-mail). Gallant can quickly produce a list of every item he has delegated to any of his direct reports. He gets a quick update on each item at his weekly staff meetings.

Failure to delegate lower-priority and less difficult tasks is a common manager affliction and is responsible for the phenomenon of the micromanager. Becoming overly involved in the details of your staff members’ work creates huge demands on your time. It is the opposite of empowerment and slows progress as staff members feel compelled to come to you for detailed instructions and are afraid to make decisions on their own.


Triage is a concept that arose in hospitals and first aid stations to ensure that wounded soldiers and victims of mass accidents received treatment in a manner that would ensure the survival of the greatest number of individuals. It involves categorizing patients and determining which need services first. Triage can also be applied to laboratory projects and activities. It requires looking at each project and activity and asking, “Is this really necessary if the organization is to prosper?” The second question that must be asked is, “If I retain this activity, what other activities must we give up?”

It is difficult to give up traditional activities even if they are time-consuming. They are part of the workplace culture and their familiarity is often reassuring. Hence, when the organization’s business is going well and budgets aren’t under pressure, triage seldom occurs. It often does occur with the arrival of a new manager without strong attachments to old ways of doing things. Other catalysts for triage are staff reductions and budget cuts. The resulting loss of resources means that those still available must be focused on the highest-priority activities.

One common area for triage is meetings. The number of meetings is often excessive. Information can sometimes be conveyed more efficiently through e-mails. Another concern is minimizing the time spent in meetings by being sure they are run efficiently. A third is looking at your schedule and the meeting agenda. Is your attendance at the meeting really necessary? What is lost—and gained—if you skip the meeting?

Effective time management

None of the above measures will achieve much without effective time management. Effective time management doesn’t mean keeping busy every minute. It’s using those minutes for high-priority activities that will make a difference. “Managers cannot ensure the long-term viability of their organizations by working on administrivia and responding to customer crises all day. That’s just treating symptoms rather than correcting underlying problems,” observes Jeff Mowatt, author of Becoming a Service Icon in 90 Minutes a Month1. “As a manager, your most important priority should be working on high-payoff business-building projects.”

To achieve this goal, Mowatt advises managers to determine their top priorities and spend the first ninety minutes of the work day on these projects. This enables one to spend the rest of the work day on dealing with customer and administrative issues. This is an example of the Pareto Principle, sometimes known as the 80:20 Rule. In its modern formulation developed by quality guru Joseph Juran, most of one’s achievements (about 80 percent) are achieved through 20 percent of one’s efforts. Juran applied the Pareto Principle to focus on the most frequent and serious causes of poor product quality and fix them first. His clients, mostly Japanese firms, did so and Japan became an export juggernaut. In the case of lab management, the 20 percent of your workday you spend on strategic projects accomplishes more than the 80 percent of your day that you spend on other matters.

Mowatt advises, “The key is to ignore your e-mail, phone messages and all the other ‘urgent’ stuff until after that first hour and a half of project work. If you have an intranet calendar where other people can schedule meetings for you, make sure to get there first and block off that first hour and a half of each working day.”

Prepare daily, weekly and monthly “to do” lists. Include both the items you have to do and the items you want to do. Don’t worry if you are moderately overscheduled. For each item on your to-do list, ask yourself, “Is this the best use of my time?” Prioritize your list. Eliminate things that don’t really matter.

I find it helpful to schedule work backward from the project deadline. This lets me know when work on a project has to be initiated. It also provides a check on whether the deadline is reasonable or not. I always allow an additional 10 percent of my time to cope with unforeseen project delays.

There are a large number of paper and electronic time management systems commercially available. No single one is best for everyone. The trick is to experiment until you find one you like. I’ve tried several electronic systems and found I prefer a paper-based one. Avoid electronic systems that have a time-consuming learning curve.

Importance vs. Urgency

Michael Singer Dobson of the Project Management Institute and author of The Juggler’s Guide to Managing Multiple Projects2 has emphasized the importance of balancing project importance and urgency. Often short-term projects have a lower importance but a greater urgency because they must be completed quickly.

Sales representatives and business managers can be powerful advocates for short-term projects. These projects can have a quick impact on the bottom line even if it is not a major one. The key is to accept the need for these shortterm projects and work on them without letting them overwhelm your longer-term, higher-impact projects

I use a simple spreadsheet to help establish the relative importance and urgency of projects (Table 1). These are the factors:

  • Impact of the project results on the company bottom line.
  • Uniqueness of the results. Will the results of the project be a unique new product or service or a “me too” one?
  • Shelf life of the results. How long will the project results provide a competitive advantage to the company?
  • Level of resources required to accomplish these results. In essence this is the cost of the completed project.
  • Score—arrived at by adding the values listed in each column.
  • Overall project ranking. The ranking identifies the highest-priority projects.
ProjectImpact of Project ResultsUniqueness of the ResultsShelf Life of the ResultsLevel of Required ResourcesScoreRanking

Table 1. Using a Spreadsheet to Prioritize Projects 

I use a five-point scale to rank five factors for each project. The numeral 1 represents low importance and the numeral 5 high importance. The exception is the case of the level of resources, including staffing, required to achieve project goals. In this case, the numeral 1 represents a high level, which is a negative from the management perspective, and the numeral 5, a small amount of resources.

Each of these five factors may not have the same weight. In this case, one can assign a weighting value to each factor. For example, a small laboratory may be much more limited in adding staff to complete a project. Hence the weighting value for the fourth column may be greater than it would be for a large laboratory where a lab manager often has more flexibility in transferring staff members from other projects or hiring new staff.

Table 1 leads to the perhaps counterintuitive conclusion that Project A should not be the highest-priority project. This is because of the high amount of resources needed to achieve the Project A goals.

Table 1, depicting only four projects, may seem unimpressive. However, if you are a department manager whose staff is working on a dozen projects or is in charge of a large laboratory in which 50 projects are in progress, the value of Table 1 in managing a very large number of projects becomes more apparent.


Doing a good job of establishing project priorities and focusing on the highest-priority projects can enable your laboratory to compete effectively with laboratories having much larger staffs and budgets.


1. J. Mowatt, Becoming a Service Icon in Ten Minutes per Month, JC Mowatt Seminars Inc. (January 1, 2004).

2. M.S. Dobson, “The Juggler’s Guide to Managing Multiple Projects,” Project Management Institute (December 1999).