Amazon can easily show you a product of their choice while you’re on their site. This is their action. Since it’s so easy to show you things, it makes sense to work a lot on choosing carefully what to show. This is their prioritization. Refer to this class of ranking problem as the advertising type.
It is fairly difficult to send food aid to a village (action) or to support and improve a challenged school (action). A deficiency of both knowledge and resources motivates a need to choose where to give attention (prioritization). Refer to this type of ranking problem as the intervention type.
Advertising problems are essentially scattershot and we only care about whether we hit something, anything. All you need is one good display, perhaps, and you make a sale. These prioritization choices also happen incredibly frequently; they demand automation and preclude individual human evaluation. It doesn’t matter because you only need to succeed on average.
Intervention problems, on the other hand, have a million challenges. Even a perfect solution to the prioritization problem does not guarantee success. Careful action will be required of multiple people after a prioritization is complete, and meaningful reasons for prioritization choices will be helpful, likely required. It is inhumane to think of “success on average” for these problems.
These two types of problems are different and demand different approaches. However, advertising-type problems and the focus and success of “advertisers” on the prioritization part of their work is influencing choices in how problems of both type are approached.
We’re spending too much effort on prioritization, sometimes even mistaking prioritization for action. Why?
1. Prioritization as a way to maximize impact. Certainly it’s good to maximize impact, but it also reflects an abhorrent reality: that we lack the capability to impact everywhere that has need. While it’s good to direct aid to the neediest villages, the need to do that prioritization is a sign that we are choosing to leave other needy villages without aid. We should not forget that we are not solving the problem but only addressing a part of it.
2. Selfish prioritization. Realizing a lack of resources (good schools, good housing, etc.) we wish to identify the best for ourselves. This can appear in guises that sound well-intentioned, but it is fundamentally about some people winning in a zero-sum game while others lose.
3. Prioritization because we don’t know how to take action. This is dangerous because we could let prioritization become our only hope while no resources are directed to solving the problem. While information can drive action eventually, there are lots of problems for which the only thing that will help is a solution (action), not just articulating and re-articulating the problem (prioritization).
I think we need to work more on actions. We need to develop solutions that do not perpetuate a zero-sum game but that improve conditions for everyone. We still need prioritization, but we should be aware of how it fits in to solving problems. Important actions are hard to figure out.