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“top priority” November 24, 2008

Posted by That Guy in Definition.
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top priority
TAHP pri-OR-i-tee

Generally, people will prioritize their to-do lists in one of two ways: what they want to do at the top and what they don’t at the bottom, or what’s most important at the top and what’s least important at the bottom. Sometimes, as I do, you’ll see a list thrown together haphazardly and people will do something they like, then something they don’t, and alternate until everything’s done. But however you prioritize, you know you do it, even if you only do it mentally (ie: take out bread and jelly from refrigerator, take peanut butter out of closet, open bread bag, put bread on plate, et cetera).

Occasionally, something will legitimately rocket to the top of the to-do list, however. Let’s say you’re cooking dinner, and while you’re making the salad, you smell something burning. The number-one thing on your to-do list becomes “find the source of the burning and make it stop as soon as possible”. That’s what we call a “top priority”.

Of course, in the corporate landscape, top priority is very, very different. What you as a peon think is top priority — like, oh, I don’t know, fixing bugs and making the product work right — isn’t the same as what your boss (or your boss’s boss) thinks is top priority.

Let’s say you’re in charge of updating all the content on a website for people attending your conference. It’s a pretty big job; you have to do daily newsletters, update photo galleries, post archived presentations, keep schedules current, and post messages. You also send out e-mail alerts when something is about to begin, and you generally make sure people can find what they need quickly and easily. Your personal top priority is making the website work right and be current.

Your boss’s top priority, on the other hand, is putting out one-minute video updates via cellphone to all attendees who’ve signed up, recapping what’s happened and talking about what’s coming up. About 5,000 people are at the conference, but only 75 of them have signed up. Still, this is your boss’s baby, and therefore it becomes your top priority to make sure those 75 people get these videos on their phones. Nevermind that you make the same content available as an e-mailed alert that more than 4,000 people have signed up for; your top priority is whatever your boss says it is.

But what happens when your boss’s boss finds a problem?

Two words: Drop. Everything.

Sometimes, the big boss finds a legitimate problem — the download link for your latest patch isn’t working, or something is spelled wrong on a mailer.

Other times, it’s something so uselessly cosmetic that no one would notice it unless you pointed it out to them. But because the big boss saw it, it becomes top priority. Never mind that you have to keep your own boss happy by sending out video recaps and updates. Never mind that you have schedules to maintain and e-mails to send and that you still have to respond to people contacting you through your company’s main website because that’s part of your job too — responding to customers and potential customers. Never mind that because you’re at the conference you’re out of your element, working on an unfamiliar computer in an unfamiliar location and you just want to get your job done. And never mind that all your other projects are on hold because you have to come to this conference and you’re going to spend several days doing unpaid overtime just to finish your regular jobs.

Because your big boss noticed that the blue background on the conference site is ever-so-slightly different than your company’s main color. Or that in Safari the page fonts render differently. Or that today’s daily customer update came out half an hour late because you were dealing with one of your four required video updates that serve less than 20% of the conference attendees.

Whatever your big boss wants, no matter how trivial, becomes top priority. That’s just the way it is.

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