Laurie and I recently conducted a training program on The Four Conversations for a group of project managers. Since most of the managers were from the same organization, they all encountered the same problem when given an assignment. Rather than being told a due date or deadline by when the assignment was to be completed, they are told “this is high priority” and expected to do it. “High Priority” isn’t a deadline and it doesn’t support getting good promises, a key to effective performance conversations.
In the absence of a deadline or due date, all you have is a ‘whenever’. A ‘whenever’ is something that gets done… whenever they bug you enough for it, whenever you find time to work on it, whenever you feel guilty enough to do it, etc. ‘Whenever’ is stressful, an ever-looming, unknown burden to be carried around. ‘Whenever’s’, particularly from bosses, are fear generators – we worry about when it will come due, anxious it will be asked for before we have completed it, concerned about its impact on all the other work we have, and afraid of what will happen if we don’t get it done when they want it (even though we don’t know when that is).
Contrary to a ‘whenever’, a deadline is a tool for accountability and accomplishment. Deadlines provide information that allows both the person giving it and the person receiving it to know how to plan and do their work. Deadlines make both the person giving the assignment and the person getting it accountable for getting work done by a particular time, rather than whenever either feels like it should be done. When we say this is “high priority”, we avoid our responsibility for doing the work necessary to determine by when it really needs to be done.
In some organizations, a “high priority” assignment means it is to be completed within a well known period of time, for example, 24 hours. In those cases, giving someone a “high priority” assignment is tantamount to saying “Do X within 24 hours”. But in organizations where “high priority” is not well defined, where managers use it indiscriminately, saying an assignment is “high priority” conveys no useful information for when it should be done, only dread and worry.
In the training session, managers from the one organization pointed out that managers are now saying things like “This is priority 1-A” in an attempt to distinguish their high priority assignment from all the other high priority assignments. Who are they kidding? All they are doing is adding confusion while undermining their own credibility and any chance of real accountability.
Do yourself and others a favor, make clean requests and give a due date.
[reprinted from professorford.com with permission]