In the search for an effectively prioritized problem dashboard, you often come across a well-intentioned task list that shows everything is on fire, no resources are available, and that your team is doing “the best they can”. Often times this frustrating situation causes both stress and anxiety for all involved. What can be done when everything seems important? Where should you even start?

In times like these, I refer to a tool called Situation Appraisal (SA). This tool is a simple, yet powerful framework for separating the concerns being faced, using the concepts of current impact, future impact, and timeframe to yield the much-desired separation in priority and get a team, or individual back on track.

Key #1 – Use a dashboard to understand the big picture

One of the keys to moving forward is to gain an immediate view of the issues your team is working on. An effective way to do this is to develop a dashboard and both clearly define and agree on priorities. This technique gives you the insight needed to determine which problems require immediate attention and which ones can safely be parked to be looked at another day.

A well-designed dashboard will show you:

· Where to begin

· How to recognize the situations that require action

· How to break apart issues that are overlapping and causing confusion

· How to set priorities

· How to manage a number of simultaneous activities effectively

· How to effectively manage involvement, and plan for execution.

Key #2 – Start with the invitation

When confronted with a large list of issues, often the best place to start is with a theme. Ensure that when starting any dashboard creation exercise, that a simple theme is well stated, perhaps as the subject line to the invitation email, or written on a whiteboard, short, clear and plain for all to see. “Quarterly Production Issues” for instance. This theme will help you remain in scope, stop side conversations and focus on the issue, category, or product at hand. All remaining issues can then be pushed to the side and considered at another time.

Key #3 – Make the first round quick and write down the concerns

Open the conversation with quick identification of the 5 or 6 issues that pose the biggest threat to the organization, group, or team. Make sure to stick within the given theme. Generally, even with a diverse group of people involved, these issues will be easy to recognize and agree on – after all, they are usually causing the biggest headache. Focusing on the current critical areas, as well as those that have the most significant growth or future impact will provide the best business value.

Key #4 – Use questioning skills to clarify concerns

When faced with a raft of problems it is easy to rush headlong into working on the issue that seems, at first glance to be the most urgent. But without taking pause, and clarifying the issues that are demanding attention, it is very easy to end up working on the wrong problem.

Use simple clarification questions such as “What do you mean by…” on all initially stated concern can mean the difference between a team focusing on the broadly stated “Production is down” and the focused “Packaging Machine 6 is out of supplies”. See the difference? One starts a panic and feelings of paralysis, the other immediately tells the right team member (like an SME) where to begin and helps them form a plan of action.

Key #5 – Break it down and separate concerns into action items

It is very common to find, once we get into the depths of an issue, that we are actually dealing with multiple concerns that have combined to appear as one. Breaking the concern down to its individual parts will make sure that everyone is on the same page and working on the same issue. It also helps in sorting our priorities and puts the option of partial concern resolution on the table as an option.

Having trouble with this step? Ask yourself if a concern requires more than one plan of action to resolve. If so – it should be broken down further. An item is fully broken down when it can form a complete and delegatable action item, often in a format.

Key #6 – Use data to consider current/future impact and timeframe

Determining priority can be subjective. If you ask everyone in the room to choose the most important items you could get into a heated debate.

Thankfully, there is a practical way to determine importance. Write down the following data for each broken down and clarified concern:

Current Impact: “How serious is the current impact on people, safety, cost, productivity, customers, reputation etc?”

Future Impact: “What is predicted to happen if we do nothing? What growth could this issue experience?”

Time Frame: “When will predicted future impact become true? When will the issue be too difficult, expensive, or impossible to resolve?”

The answers to one or more of these questions will give you the information you need to judge which of the issues you are considering is relatively more important than the others.

It is the lack of this relativity that often causes issues in managing the workload. Issues come in and are considered in isolation, prioritizing issues without having anything to measure against leads to the situation where we are simply working on the wrong things.

Key #7 – Assign resources and hold people accountable

Now that you have the impact data well understood, and can judge the relative importance of issues, it’s time to assign resources and get things done.

One of the techniques in this area is to consider skills and specializations required to resolve a concern rather than simply jumping to a favorite resource and assigning them. By taking the time to think through the skill levels involved, especially the minimum skills to get by – you can avoid overloading often used resources by substituting other team members that have the necessary knowledge and skills to get things done.

Holding people accountable can be as simple as recording what needs to be done, who is assigned to complete the next step, and when the next follow up milestone will occur.

In Summary

Getting things done can give a wonderful sense of accomplishment, and bring a team together, but this can quickly be undone through ineffective resource allocation and a lack of direction. By taking the 7 steps listed above you introduce a data collection and validation factor into your team and personnel management systems that can prevent unnecessary frustration and energy expenditure. I hope it is as helpful to you when thinking critically under pressure, and I look forward to your comments below!