Hard at Work - Image from William Iven on Unsplash

Here at Substantial we organize and run our projects based on the idea that you should always do the most important work first. When we do this, we serve our clients better when their needs change. It also means we can take pride in doing work that has value. Here are a few other benefits:

  • It will be easier to spend your limited resources (time, money, people) effectively
  • You will spin your wheels less and always know where your focus should be
  • You make a mountain of work manageable when when you give it order
  • You can keep closer tabs on reality when you focus on what is most important, in the context of ‘right now’

Admittedly, doing the most important thing first is sometimes easier said than done. Still, anyone can change their approach to focus on the most important work first. I’m going to talk about how to do just that.

Identifying the important work
Before you can do the important work, you have to first identify it. There are a dozen different ways to identify the work that you should or should not do. I’m going to focus on four methods that are simple to incorporate in your day-to-day workflow.

1. Follow your North Star
Your north star is your goal. The goal might be mission or outcome focused, but it should be clear. For example, some past client goals: “Improve the lives of vulnerable children,” or “Achieve mobile conversion rate of X%.”

When you ‘follow your North Star,’ you make your long term goal central to every decision and action. Ask yourself and your team, “will doing this help us reach that goal?” Even decisions that appear small or inconsequential can lead you astray. Don’t be afraid to be dogmatic: “Our goal is X, does this help us get there?” If the answer is no, set it aside.

This approach is especially effective when operating under a tight budget or timeline.

2. Card sorting
Card sorting is a flexible exercise that works well in groups when discussing high-level strategy, or specific functionality. One of the reasons I like this activity is that it can uncover assumptions that may exist. After identifying those assumptions, you can discuss and then confidently move forward.

How to run a card sorting exercise:

  1. Choose a category to be discussed: high-level strategy, specific functionality, or opportunities/problems.
  2. List all relevant items in that category on note cards, one item per note card.
  3. As a group, physically sort the cards into one stack. The most important card goes on top, least important card on the bottom.

This exercise is effective because there is no room to say “these things are both equally important!” It is physically impossible to stack two cards next to each other and give them equal weight. At the same time, you do not need to rely on cards once you are familiar with this exercise.

3. Construct a narrative
As a project or product matures, it becomes easy to slip into a pattern of reactivity. For example, you may begin to focus only on responding to external information like user feedback. When this happens, it is easy to stop acting proactively to shape the future of your product, or organization.

Instead of always asking, “How do we respond to this?” begin to rephrase the to be more reflective and then proactive: “How did we end up here?” and “What happens tomorrow, after we respond to this?”

If you change the way you think about the problem space, you give yourself room to construct a new narrative. That narrative may lead you to consider a different answer.

Here are other questions that can be helpful to think through:

  • What will happen if you don’t do this work? What will happen if you do? Does either outcome matter?
  • If we do the work, how will that work change tomorrow? How will the work change the day after tomorrow? The day after that? Be explicit in explaining the impact of the outcomes. Is the change a good thing? Negligent?
  • Assuming that you have clear goals, work backwards. In three, six or 12 months when you reflect on your journey, how will you have achieved your success? What are the steps you will have taken to get there?

4. Test your assumptions
Sometimes, the best way to understand whether you are focusing on the right thing is to get that external feedback. Test the assumptions you have about what is important. Is anyone using your product? Can anyone use it?

Show your work to somebody, anybody. Don’t rely on answers like “Yes, I would use this,” dig deeper and understand how your idea would fit into the person’s day-to-day. If it doesn’t, your idea (or that version of it) isn’t that valuable.

You don’t have to be “done” to test your idea. You can make a low-fidelity prototype with tools like Invision, or a higher fidelity prototype in Framer, or even code. You are testing your concept and the importance it has to others, not the execution.

There are other ways to test your assumptions as well; the key is to do what will get you a clear answer, quickly.

You are not perfect, we are not perfect

‘Important’ is relative. It will change as the context of your work changes. This is why we believe in flexibility and recommend having frequent conversations and questions about what the most important work is right now.

On top of that, every single one of us will fail to recognize that we are not doing the most important work at some point. We are all human and prone to biases that may lead us astray.

If you are going to do the most important work first, your team must challenge and support each other without judgment. Each person must be humble, and self-aware.

Asking questions is not a form of judgment or confrontation. No matter how strong your relationships are, questions like “Why are we doing this?” and “Is this truly important right now?” can make anyone uncomfortable. It does not feel good to have the work that you are doing questioned. But these questions are about checks and balances, accountability and support.

In the end, being aligned and focused on a single objective will lead to better outcomes for your project, and a happier team. At least, that has been my experience.

This post is based on a talk I gave with Mark Kornblum at AIGA HIVE 2017.