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5 Considerations for CPA Firms When Prioritizing Work

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May 11th 2017
Product Manager Thomson Reuters
Columnist
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If there’s one thing in life that’s constant, it’s change. And with change comes a chain reaction of decisions to be made.

When it comes to personal changes or decisions, we can usually react quickly and prioritize changes based on our own belief system. But that’s a lot harder to do when you move into a work environment created by the diverse set of life experiences you and your co-workers bring to the table.

To keep things moving, and to prevent your staff from becoming mired in arduous prioritization discussions, it’s a good idea to come up with a set of prioritization rules and processes that everyone can agree upon.

Here are five factors to consider when determining how your CPA firm will prioritize work:

1. Define your top priorities. This may sound like a chicken-or-egg question, but the fact is, before setting a framework for prioritization decisions, you need an overarching set of strategic priorities that can be used to create the framework.

In my experience, these priorities are born out of a business’s five- to 10-year strategy. Based on that strategy, determine what items you’re focusing on for the coming year as a team. This list will become what you compare other tasks to when resources become strained and prioritization decisions need to be made. Which leads to …

2. Have a detailed task list. A detailed project or task list is critical when making decisions quickly. When resources become strained, this is the go-to list that you’ll prioritize from. Even more important, make sure this list is maintained year-round with statuses and due dates so you don’t have to spend time updating or verifying when push comes to shove.

3. Budget time and categorize work. When looking at your project list, it’s important to be realistic so you can make good decisions and communicate effectively. Including a basic time budget – even if it’s just the average time a project or task takes in your office – will allow you to quickly estimate resources needed. Categorizing the work by type, skill required, or any other specialization needed will also help you quickly narrow down your list and aid in decision-making.

4. Ensure visibility. Visibility for everyone into prioritization decisions is key to making sure you’re all on the same page and working in the same direction. When one member of your team is out of step with everyone else, it can pull the entire team out of balance and cause your strategy to fail.

The prioritized task list should be posted in a central location, where all team members can see it – and everyone should be familiar with the update process. If you’ve also categorized the list, your team members will be able to narrow down their own lists so they can plan their days and focus on accomplishing their tasks.

5. Beware of “URGENT!” vs. “important.” With any service-based role, it’s easy to get caught up in “urgent” requests from customers and co-workers. However, while many requests are presented as urgent – and may indeed seem so to the person requesting help from you – that’s not always the truth of the situation.

With customers, especially, it’s difficult to determine urgent vs. important without ruining their expectations of your great customer service. But when every request is presented as urgent, you may quickly see your important strategic goals pushed down the list – possibly even causing you to miss a deadline.

The best way to combat this is to always make sure you understand the needs, expectations, and deadline of the person requesting your assistance, which will allow you to assess the level of effort it will take to fulfill the request. With that information, you’ll be able to clearly prioritize the request against your own important deadlines and give them an accurate expectation of when their request will be fulfilled.

In the end, working together as a team – with clear strategic goals and objectives – will give you a solid blueprint for decision-making and for carrying out those decisions. Because it’s all too easy to make a wrong turn and go down a different path, a standardized, transparent system of prioritizing the work in your office will help keep you on track to meet your goals when things get tough.

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