At work, we use a priority classification with the following values:

  • Priority 0 (most urgent)
  • Priority 1 (less urgent than previous p0)
  • Priority 2 (less urgent than previous p1)
  • Priority 3 (least urgent)

I've listed them in this order as I see them in order of descending or lesser importance, as you go down the list.

My boss recently sent me an email with of prioritised tasks. She stated that "These are in in descending priority", and they were listed as

  • P3 ---- butter task
  • P3 ---- cake task
  • P3 ---- apple task
  • etc.
  • P2 ---- chocolate task
  • P1 ---- cookie task

However she expects that above defined importance is applied to the list

I wonder if either of our understandings of descending when applied to priority is flawed with respect to a common sense understanding.

FYI : We're English speaking New Zealanders to give you a cultural context.

  • Another option is to replace priorities with "importance points". Confusion over numbering notwithstanding, what happens now if you get a (P0) top priority task when all the others are also top priority? With points, if you already have a 100 point ("top priority") task, the new even more important task can be 110. See "Scrum and XP from the Trenches". – Hugo Sep 8 '11 at 5:58
  • @hugo - true, but this is infeasible as the use of Px is a corporate and actually industry standard. – Preet Sangha Sep 8 '11 at 23:53
  • In general it's normal to "order items by descending priority" meaning the important ones come first, regardless of your specific numbering scheme. It would be pretty strange to list unimportant items first. – krubo Sep 9 '11 at 0:58
  • Apologies for the late submission. Ironically I left that company a few weeks later... :-) – Preet Sangha Jun 4 '13 at 5:34

I would imagine she is referring to the number system assigned to the priorities. For her Priority 0, despite arguably being the "highest" along the conceptual scale of priority, is the lowest, as zero is obviously the lowest of the assigned numbers. Since you both are immediately familiar with the numbering, it wouldn't be unreasonable for her to expect you to understand.

I don't have any solid sourcing to back up this claim, save one anecdote. While doing a project on social policy, a friend asked me to give her the "smallest" bill first. I assumed, since we had hard copies, that she meant the shortest one in length, but in reality she meant the one with the lowest assigned number (and hence earliest). Maybe some people think more in terms of labels than properties?

If this was only in one email, have you ruled out it being a typo? I know I mess up terms for orderings all the time.

  • 1
    Agreed with everything here, and I think that the writer is indicating that butter tasks are the least important tasks and cookie tasks are the most important tasks. PS Can I work at your place? – Jeremy Sep 8 '11 at 5:56

I would say that your system of assigning numeric values to priority levels is flawed, in that (in my opinion) it goes against the common-sense understanding of priority as being raised, or elevated, the more urgent it becomes. For this reason I think it makes more sense to assign low numbers to low priority tasks, say 1 (least urgent) to 5 (most urgent). I would omit zero altogether unless it had some special meaning such as an ongoing task or a task to which priority has no meaning.

With an ascending scale as described above you would avoid the confusion as evidenced by your question: namely, the "descending" numeric scale clashes with the ascending order of priority. I don't think either you or your boss are "wrong" as such, but the system invites ambiguity. I would ask the question though, is your boss confused about the application of your priority numbering system?

Having said all that, there is still always the possibility of confusion should someone be given a list of items "in order of priority". The common sense understanding would allow for the most urgent items being at the top of the list, whereas if the items were in strict numeric order they would be at the bottom.

  • 1
    Usually, priority number one or first priority is the highest priority there is. And this way if you place items in the numeric order (from No. 1 to No. whatever) they'll automatically be placed in order starting with highest priority items. – Philoto Sep 8 '11 at 7:09

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