What does “highest priority” even mean?

We always talk about focusing on the highest priority thing, as if there’s some objective, prioritized list somewhere. How do we know what’s the highest priority? The obvious answer is “whatever will make the company the most money” but that’s an impossible thing to prove.

Let’s take an example. Customers have been begging for feature X. All other things being equal, that’s a pretty good guess for the highest priority thing, yeah? But say that feature is going to be a pain to build (I don’t know, maybe it’s a bunch of boring, non-challenging work, or maybe it has a high coordination overhead with infra), and our team is already burned out.

In that case, feature X is not highest priority. The highest priority is whatever it’ll take to get the team feeling better. Because no matter how much money feature X would make us, it probably won’t match the damage caused by throwing a burned out team into another slog.

The real answer is that we can’t know what’s the highest priority thing. So we do our best. But if we decide highest priority just means the thing our customers want the most, then our culture has already lost. Because remember, our employees are our customers too.

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