If you wait long enough, everything is our top priority

I always crack a smile whenever I hear or read someone say that "XYZ is our top priority." The person may believe it at the moment they say it, but just wait a little while, and soon there will be a new top priority.

If you call the person out on their shifting priorities, they usually come up with some hand-waving explanation that the two "top" priorities are actually the same thing.

Last week, you said that customer satisfaction was our top priority, but just now you said that our employees' well-being is our top priority. Which one is the real top priority? In other words, which is more important, customer satisfaction or employee well-being?

"Well, you see, if our employees are happy and healthy, that shows itself in the quality of service we provide our customers, so the two are really facets of the same underlying issue. Which is our top priority."

But there can be a conflict between the two. For example, longer hours of operation improve customer service, but it also takes a toll on the workforce. Which goal is more important?

"That's an interesting question. Obviously we would work very hard to try to avoid such a conflict. I'm confident that my leadership team will be able to address both issues without having to sacrifice on either one."

Wait, now they are separate issues again? You said earlier that they were the same issue.

"I think I've answered your question. Anybody else have a question?"

Comments (27)
  1. SuperKoko says:

    Well, actually, the mere notion of "priority" is specifically defined WHEN there’s a conflict.

    If there’re no conflicts, there’s no need to define priorities.

  2. nathan_works says:

    I wonder if this is a good way to get out of the invitations to see the latest VP/exec for a talk/Q&A session (in person or the teleconferences)..

  3. Jim Lyon says:

    At a previous employer, the standing line was:

    The nice thing about everything being priority one is that you get to work on whatever you want.

  4. SRS says:

    I remember when top priority was (I quote) "Developers! Developers! Developers! Developers!". What is it now?

  5. Mark (The other Mark) says:

    The nice thing about our company is, if you don’t agree with our top priority, wait five minutes!

  6. anonymouse cow-ard says:

    I used to work for a company that had this priority problem with projects. At one point it got so bad that priorities were shifting on almost a daily basis.  

    The upper management would announce  everyone is now on project abc, the next day put everyone on project zyx, and later lmno.  The problem when this happens is that everything is a priority and yet nothing is, so nothing gets moved forward. Thus a wheel spins in the mud.

    Funny thing is while frustrating, I often found myself laughing to myself at the situation, as the other lower level managers, myself included, tried to determine the real priority and further it.

  7. R. Bemrose says:

    Well, I’ve heard managers refer to things as top priorities (emphasis on the ies) rather than just a single top priority.

    Of course, that still doesn’t explain how they rank top priorities against each other.

  8. John says:

    In my experience, prioritizing your top priorities is usually the top priority.

  9. Rick C says:

    The proper way to prioritize your a-list items is to ask your manager, "which one of these top priority items should I work on?"

    Preferably without any sarcasm in your voice, and with a straight face.

  10. @SRS – those priorities are:

    1) make Intel happy

    2) consumer satisfaction

    3) developers, developers, developers!

    4) make HP happy

  11. Dale says:

    Was the person asking the questions, "Fully Vested"?  :-)

    Or was that whole FYIFV thing, an urban myth?

  12. Ulric says:

    There is a famous Dilbert comic about this.

    Here is it!


    Manager: “Remember, quality is our top priority.”

    Dilbert: “Question: Is it more important than safety?

    Manager: “Ooh… I forgot about that one.”

    Dilbert: “Is quality more important than obeying the law?”

    Manager: “Well…, probably not.”

    Dilbert “If we could maximize shareholder value by selling lower quality items, wouldn’t we have a fiduciary responsibility to do it?

    Manager: “I’m sure quality is in the top four.”

    Dilbert: “What if we had to lie to achieve quality?

  13. Random Coward says:

    That problem is caused by the Multimedia Class Scheduler Service, which boosts certain priorities in an effort to compensate for the default braindead scheduling policy. Kinda like how SuperFetch and friends try to compensate for resource managing deficiencies.

  14. So, that begs the question, who decides when a question is answered, the answerer or the questioner?

  15. dave says:

    Round here, we have the Lake Wobegon rule of bug-fix priorities: they’re all above average.

  16. frymaster says:

    Robert C. Barth:

    I think we’ve answered your question.

  17. The ‘picking between the two’ is key. The people who’ve earned my respect over the years give the answer that you just wrote but would then go on to explain what their choice would be and what the principles behind that choice are.

  18. Jolyon Smith says:

    Tends to reveal an organisation with a very limited view of what constitutes "priority".  The first and most productive change I ever make to an issue tracking/job scheduling implementation (when I get the chance) is to split the "Priority" field into two:  "Importance" and "Urgency".

    Something can be crucially important but not at all urgent (we mustn’t forget to do this) and equally it might be critically urgent, but not very important (we promised the customer this fix in next weeks release, even though they could live without it).

    "Priority" is then derived from Urgency and Importance.  You deal with Important+Urgent issues, then the Urgent issues, then the Important issues and only then deal with anything else that’s left (by definition, not urgent and not important).

  19. IgorD says:

    Same thing as top windows on Windows.

    What is the top, front, topmost front window in any given moment? What if top window (or dialog) doesn’t have the focus? What is the top window when I have this search dialog, but when I click on the window beneath?

    You see, everything is a matter of interpretation ;)

  20. Silly. says:

    I’m confused; are you actually making a meaningful statement about prioritization, or just attempting to make your coworkers look dumb?

  21. Gwyn says:

    Our issue tracking system has 5 priority levels:

    1. High
    2. Critical

    3. Mission-critical

    4. Life-and-death

    5. Demo

    If the issue was not high priority, obviously they wouldn’t bother reporting it (until it is).

  22. Goran says:

    "I think I’ve answered your question"

    means: "Sod off!"


  23. Dave says:

    @Jolyon Smith

    I would say that important but not urgent comes before urgent but not important, doesn’t it?

    Even if it is urgent, if it is not important, why bother about it if you have other important tasks? What’s the point of your split if you use it wrong?

    In addition, urgent and not important: wait that week promised to the customer and then it is not urgent anymore

  24. Friday says:

    Well, it’s obvious that DRM is top priority for Multimedia Class Scheduler Service.

  25. JM says:

    I can’t decide which one of these phrases is more annoying: "I think I’ve answered your question" or "You haven’t answered my question". It probably depends on what side you happen to be on at the moment…

  26. Godzila says:


    I’m confused… are you really confused? That’s just silly!

  27. clively says:

    "I think I’ve answered your question"

    Means, "You get to choose, but if you pick the wrong one I’m going to blame you."

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