An effective public works manager...prioritizes

Gary D. Strack, P.E.
Director, Structural Engineering
Shafer, Kline & Warren, Inc.
Overland Park, Kansas
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

Note: The APWA Leadership and Management Committee has developed a set of core competencies for public works managers. The series of articles in the APWA Reporter based on these competencies-entitled "The Baker's Menu"-is designed to help public works professionals recognize and develop managerial talent. Included in this issue is the tenth in the series of competencies recommended by the committee. For more information please contact Ann Daniels, APWA Director of Technical Services, at (800) 848-APWA or at

"Anything less than a conscious commitment to the important is an unconscious commitment to the unimportant." - Roger Merrill, coauthor, First Things First

Priorities are a list of actions or processes necessary to accomplish a task or parts of a task. Complicating this definition, priorities are generally based on the perspective of the individual or group with the expectation that the goal is going to be accomplished. For example, Elm Street may be 20th on your list of snow removal goals since it is not an emergency snow route; however, Joe Citizen thinks Elm Street should be the first one cleaned so he can get to work. Joe Citizen's priority list is Elm Street first, emergency snow routes second. In this particular case, a solution to this potential conflict is to develop a priority list of which streets will be cleared first and publish it so Joe Citizen knows and understands why.

The other day I experienced firsthand how this happens. With an appointment scheduled in a neighboring city for mid-morning, I received phone calls on two separate projects requesting my attention. Fortunately, they were within a few miles of my route to and from the neighboring city, so I was able to take a little extra time from the office and my scheduled activities. The high priorities to the individuals on the other end of the phone would have been lower priorities on my schedule if I hadn't already been driving close by. So how do you decide whether to continue with your scheduled activity or postpone it for another person's priority? Things to take into account when trying to make these types of decisions include:

  • Time - how urgent is the request? How much time will each action item take?
  • Schedule - if I do the other task, what impact does it have on my scheduled activities?
  • Individual - who's asking? Boss, client, coworker, friend, wife, etc.?
  • Delegation - is it something I can have another person do proficiently?
  • Implication - are there multiple impacts?
  • Order - will performing certain tasks in a specific order be more efficient?
  • Communication - have I gotten all of the information to complete the task?

To me, communication is the keystone to prioritization. If you don't have all of the information to adequately plan, how can you or others be able to prioritize your (or their) responsibilities and complete them? Communicate your priorities list to potential affected parties, such as your boss, coworkers, and clients. If others understand what it takes to get the information for their request, they should be more understanding of the time it will take to complete the task. The affected parties also may be willing to alter their request schedule to make it easier for you when they understand your predicament.

"Any enterprise built by wise planning becomes strong through common sense, and profits wonderfully by keeping abreast of the facts."  - King Solomon

Clarify your priorities with those your priority decision will impact. As an example, a fellow worker comes up to you and says, "I need this retaining wall designed by the end of the day without fail." Your response is, "We will be glad to do that; however, you must realize that the project you asked me to complete by the end of the week will have to be delayed because we can't work on both at the same time. Is this acceptable to you or do you have another solution in mind?"

The "Time Management Matrix" from Prioritize by Joe Calhoon and Bruce Jeffrey is shown below.

                               Urgent               Not Urgent
Important              Gets Done          Opportunity
Not Important       Deception           Waste

Note that Urgent-Important things "get done" and Urgent-Not Important things are deceptive, making you feel they need to be done. Focus your efforts on Not Urgent-Important things because they present you with the "opportunity" to create high-performance in your organization and life.

"Opportunity" presents you with the possibilities of preventing problems, building relationships, increasing capacity, and developing leaders. Joe Calhoon says "priorities are important but not urgent." Other people influence the urgency of our priority list.

"The key to effective time management is to habitually do the things that are important!" - Joe Calhoon

The tasks of prioritizing are going through and ranking the decisions listed above and figuring out which ones come first. A simple example of these interdependent tasks is getting into your car to go somewhere. The car key is your number-one priority, because you can have everything else you could possibly need and not be able to start the car. Use this analogy to create your priority list. Getting our priorities in order so that we can accomplish our goals should be the first thing we do each day.

"What may be done at any time will be done at no time." - Scottish Proverb

Gary D. Strack, P.E., can be reached at (913) 888-7800 or

Core Competencies at a Glance

  • Encourages Team Building
  • Involves Others
  • Possesses Oral/Written Skills
  • Builds Trust/Respect
  • Prioritizes
  • Sets Realistic Goals
  • Helps Others to Succeed
  • Resolves Conflict
  • Manages Time
  • Manages Workload
  • Develops Staff
  • Anticipates Future Needs
  • Is Flexible