Covey's Quadrants in IT
Stephen Covey's books on the habits of effective people are standard reading in many business courses and professional development classes. One of the productivity tools he teaches is the quadrant system.
The first quadrant refers to tasks that are important and necessary. In IT, this can include large system outages, data spills, security fixes to prevent data spills and file access problems that prevent delivery of a product.
The second quadrant refers to important tasks that are not urgent. These tasks need to be done to improve the organization in the long term, provide an opportunity to improve the operation or become quadrant one tasks if left alone too long.
Examples of tasks that improve the organization can include gathering monthly metrics like user counts to plan future infrastructure needs or performing periodic customer satisfaction surveys.
Tasks like user training and development of additional subject matter experts can fall into this category. Improving user understanding reduces the number of false red alert tickets received as well as the odds someone can solve their own problem instead of calling the help desk. Training more subject matter experts takes some time from current SMEs today to invest in others, but you benefit later on by having more people who can work on quadrant one and quadrant two tasks later.
In my opinion, many user tickets are in the second quadrant, though users tend to put them all in the first quadrant. New user set ups are important, but an extra day waiting for a new person to gain access isn’t as important as the server that is down. Tickets for a forgotten password is urgent to that person, but there is the option of asking someone next door for the drawing or to run the report for you.
Quadrant two in IT should also include the upgrades of applications and servers to improve performance, security and efficiency. Delays to upgrades can affect performance, while repeated delays risks the introduction of security holes and major problems while trying to implement several patches or upgrades at once.
The third quadrant contains tasks that are urgent but not important. These tasks may be interruptions or busy work. The old joke that lack of planning on your part is not an emergency on my part is a good way to identify tasks that fall into the third quadrant.
In my opinion, this category includes many user tickets. Requests to change an employee’s last name in the database, remove people who are already deactivated, updating and expanding a user’s privileges are minor tasks that need to be done. However, they take a back burner to the category one tasks and should be secondary to quadrant two.
Too many meetings fall under quadrant three. If you already receive a status report at regularly intervals about various metrics or outstanding tickets, is it necessary to take an hour or two to review it unless work would be reallocated to focus on quadrant one and two activities?
The fourth quadrant involves wasteful and trivial tasks that should be limited. These tasks are neither important or urgent.
These tasks may include handling tickets asking for an explanation of why things work the way they do or software enhancements that do nothing to improve its performance or user productivity. One task I can squarely place in this quadrant was when we had several shifts in management, and I had to update hundreds of documents, templates and even queues from “product data management” to “product lifecycle management” – before the new manager came in and said it was to go back the way it was.
One concern for IT staff prioritizing tasks according to Covey’s model is to classifying important user tickets to this unimportant, to-be-avoided category. Users who need inexplicable errors troubleshot or experience repeated login failures when following standard procedures shouldn’t be shunted to the side, with their failures assigned to human error. These issues should be in second or third category, depending on how many people experience the problem or its impact to the business.