We need structure and priorities at every level in order to lead constructive and productive lives and to deliver whatever it is we produce as companies and individuals. So the practical problem becomes, how do we decide what a priority is? When we’re faced with something we have to accomplish or a project, where do we start?
A systemic approach can really help us out here. Not only does it support us in deciding about priorities, it produces an end result that is totally connected and integrated, from the overall goal to the very last task that delivers that goal into reality. It guides us so we never lose sight of the reason why something has to be done, no matter how small that ‘something’ is.
You can’t break complexity down into separate pieces
A conventional approach to prioritizing would be to take an overall project and “decompose” it into pieces using a linear logic. This would be fine if our world worked like a Newtonian piece of clockwork machinery. Instead, we live in a world of complexity and we have to make the effort to shift our way of thinking and acting accordingly. Two predominant features of complexity are interdependencies and non-linearity. If this is how our reality works then we need adequate tools.
Seeing the big picture with the Theory of Constraints
The approach of WBS (Work Breakdown Structure) is a linear approach that breaks a scope down into a hierarchy of “pieces”. This undoubtedly helps. However, it does not take into consideration the “why” of a project or any human factor. It creates pieces that can be “separated off” and possibly outsourced without worrying about the interactions among the pieces.
In the Theory of Constraints we find a fully integrated method for tackling any complex and challenging project. It is an approach that at every moment, no matter how detailed, provides a helicopter view of the work to be done as well as keeping the overall goal in plain sight. Not only that, the endeavour starts by clearly defining the goal as a solution to a problem, not simply an objective. For this purpose we can use the “Conflict Cloud” Thinking Process Tool that provides an in-depth analysis of a situation of blockage and the breakthrough solutions to move forward. A realistic goal is derived organically from that analysis.
Priorities and prerequisites
The question of priorities is intrinsically solved through the use of Prerequisite Trees. Once we have identified through the Conflict Cloud the set of solutions that together will bring about the desired result, we then build Prerequisite Trees by first listing all of the obstacles standing between us now and the achievement of those solutions, and a parallel list of Intermediate Objectives that would overcome those obstacles. Those Intermediate Objectives then have to be sequenced on the basis of which IO is prerequisite to another (what MUST be done first for the next thing to happen). This means we interconnect events through a non-linear logic of necessity. It is not a mathematical logic but one that takes into account the human factor and the reality we live in (there is no mathematically “correct” Prerequisite Tree and different people will build them differently). What is required, though, to build good Prerequisite Tree is to have the people with the right competencies in the room no matter what part of the organization they belong to. Prerequisite Trees cannot be built within silos.
The Intermediate Objectives then need to be broken down into tasks. This can be done based on a logic of sufficiency using Transition Trees. Transition Trees identify not just the tasks to achieve san objective but the reasoning behind it. This allows a high degree of communicability and transparency as all those involved can see not only what but why they have to do something.
At this level of detail, costing and scheduling become possible. A systemic solution for finite capacity scheduling can be found in Critical Chain. Once again, identifying priorities is intrinsic to the method. The priorities of a project become crystal clear – they are whatever is on the Critical Chain. Everything else must be subordinated to the Critical Chain as that is the constraint and what determines the successful completion of the project on time and within budget. Resource contention doesn’t require any calculation of what is a priority because it is solved upstream by only scheduling the finite (real, available) capacity of resources.
Thinking it through
Using the systemic tools from the Theory of Constraints gives an added dimension to the expression ‘thinking something through’. The tools support and shape the entire thought process behind conceiving and delivering a project. There is no such thing as a small action in a project created with this method because every single aspect can be connected back logically and emotionally to the goal and scope. Indeed, this kind of thinking for action creates all the basis needed for intelligent emotions, in other words, the human intelligence and energies that need to be harnessed and synchronized towards the achievement of a clear and realistic goal.
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About the Author
Angela Montgomery Ph.D. is Partner and Co-founder of Intelligent Management and author of the business novel+ website The Human Constraint . This downloadable novel uses narrative to look at how the Deming approach and the Theory of Constraints can create the organization of the future, based on collaboration, network and social innovation. She is co-author with Dr. Domenico Lepore, founder, and Dr. Giovanni Siepe of ‘Quality, Involvement, Flow: The Systemic Organization’ from CRC Press, New York.