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Dev Blog

Nothing is Critical

by Corey on October 28/2010

“Oh, that can’t be right. That’s just a sneaky title to get me to read this.”

Well, yeah. But it’s true, NOTHING is critical.

In my career, I’ve set up and managed at least a dozen different issue tracking systems. And all of these tracking system had a feature called a “Priority” field — it allows you to mark an issue as “Low”, or “Medium” or “CRITICAL”, or whatever. However, I’ve never worked anywhere it was actually used.

Let’s face it: what’s critical today is whatever everyone’s rushing around trying to pull together. Everyone knows what’s critical, because that’s the thing they’re already working on.

There’s this cheerful sort of fantasy where product managers (or unicorns, or other semi-mythical beings) go thoughtfully through the entire list of issues and rank their individual importance. This task completed, the entire team now has an effortless way of deciding what to do next — just pull the next CRITICAL item off the list until there are no more CRITICAL ones, then start on the IMPORTANT ones. Or perhaps the URGENT ones. Whatever.

Of course, what actually happens differs from this dream in two ways. First, the thoughtful priority ranking never ever happens. Look, there are CRITICAL things in your list of issues — is prioritizing something that’s not CRITICAL a CRITICAL task? No way. Gotta get the CRITICAL things done RIGHT NOW. CRITICAL.

Which brings us to the second way in which actual process varies from imagined process: when it comes time to choose what to do next, the listed priority on a given item is always going to be overridden by the actual current priority in the stakeholder’s head. They never choose their next task on the basis of what’s listed as CRITICAL — it’s what is actually CRITICAL right now that gets done next. And rightly so. Keeping track of what’s critical from one day to the next is a job much better handled by living brains than digital lists.

Lastly, these systems are very hard to keep current, and the further they drift from actual practice, the harder it is to correct. Eventually you end up having to discard everything and re-prioritize. Which, as noted above, is a waste of time. So you end up where issues in the CRITICAL priority list are things like “Too many rats on top of the ducts” and whatnot, since all the actually CRITICAL stuff is getting done.

We don’t really use the “Priority” field here at FreshBooks — we’re deploying so often, and the developers are so close to the business, that there’s a solid shared understanding of what’s actually CRITICAL. But like I said, I’ve never worked anywhere that actually used it — it’s just a busy-work field for people who like filling in forms. Nothing is CRITICAL.

Photo by Rob Rosenhamer.