Time Management by Birthday Cake?

golf-themed-birthday-cake_lA few weeks ago, I was sitting down with our IT Director as we were trying to prioritize the many tasks and projects that were vying for his attention. In the midst of trying to get high priority projects out the door, he was being forced to shelve other necessary evils such as internal support and bug fixes on previously launched projects.  This was causing significant interdepartmental frustration as support requests would go unanswered. This also was a source of significant frustration for our IT Director as he really wanted to get to everything, but it was just physically impossible with new project deadlines staring him in the face.

As we wrestled through this problem, we white boarded a three-tiered priority list that was later termed a “Birthday Cake.”

Three Layer Cake: What absolutely must be done? The bottom layer is the first priority. With the top layer being the lowest of the three. photoOver the past few months, we’ve experimented with 4+ layers, but have found that most of us are not very good at focusing on more than 3 big priorities at any given time.

These layers should not be specific tasks but rather broad categories or “buckets” that can be filled. For IT, the bottom category was Support with Bug Fixes and New Projects following.

Achieving Clarity: As we baked IT’s Birthday Cake, we realized several side benefits that we did not originally anticipate. Suddenly, we had a simple way to communicate IT’s priorities throughout the company. Now, instead of being frustrated by unpredictability, other departments knew that they would have guaranteed support but that new projects might be slower in coming. We had taken a major step in aligning expectations across the company.

It also helped me realize that we had been encouraging wrong behaviors through the bonus system. We had been bonusing IT on new projects, then getting frustrated when they didn’t provide support and bug fixes. Go figure! We fixed this by focusing bonus payments around internal support metrics such as interdepartmental ticket turn around times, etc.

The biggest benefit comes on those overwhelming days when the time is too short and the task list is too long. The Birthday Cake becomes a filter through which to understand which of those tasks should take priority.


This simple time management concept has spread from IT to many other departments who are using birthday cakes to communicate the focus they are trying to achieve. Now, departmental birthday cakes cover whiteboards, windows, and walls throughout the office. A very simple concept, but I am all about simple!

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Photo credit: Graceful Cake Creations / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

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