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Disciplined Prioritization:
Ready to Ditch Half of Your Priorities?

Why Half of Your Priorities May NOT be Real Priorities!

Imagine half of the priorities across your organization were not real priorities at all. That is a frightening thought! Yet, data suggests that it might actually be true.

The Problem with Priorities

The problem with priorities is five-fold. There are 5 reasons why ‘Disciplined Prioritization’ is so important for organizations and their leaders:

1. There are Lists of Priorities Everywhere!

Every organization has priorities, so too its various departments, units and teams. Indeed, there are few executives that don’t have or can’t list a set of priorities. It is a real challenge is to ensure that these disparate lists are coherent and consistent.

Combine all these priorities together and you will have a very long list indeed. Therein lies the problem, with so many priorities:

  • How to ensure that leaders and their teams are focused on what really matters most?
  • How to ensure a consistent and coherent list of priorities (across functions) that reflect the needs of the business and its strategy?

2. Most Lists of Priorities are Too Long!

That is thanks to our optimistic and ambitious nature! This has a more scientific name ‘the Planning Fallacy’ where as leaders we habitually are prone to under-estimate how long till will take and dhow much they will cost1. New priorities get added to the list all the time, with little, if anything, being removed. But, a bloated list of priorities results in a proliferation of projects and initiatives competing for scarce time and attention. Resources are spread thinly across everything, with the real priorities – those priorities, projects and initiatives most closely linked to success – starved of sufficient time and resources.

3. Lists Of Priorities May be Only 50% Accurate!

Research backs up our findings that initial (or quickly prepared) lists of priorities are only 50% accurate2 This is what routinely happens when priorities are set without sufficient deliberation or consultation.

4. Priorities Are Not Reviewed & Updated Regularly Enough!

We work in a dynamic and fast changing environment. That means updating our priorities to reflect changing business and stakeholder needs, for example. While adopting an agile approach, we must also ensure that priorities don’t shift erratically from week to week or month to month.

5. Priorities Often Struggle to Get Time & Resources

Even if leaders had the right list(s) of priorities (consistent with the above) that is only part of the challenge. There is often a gap between priorities on paper and the daily reality of work.

Busy leaders often tell us that they struggle to spend time on their top priorities – often giving them less than 5% or 10% of their time or attention. Ensuring that the chosen priorities are reflected in the reality of how busy executives spend their time and organizations allocate resources can be a real challenge. There is a greater awareness of the practical constraints that exist of leaders in terms of time, talent and other resources. Ideally, this resource scarcity should lead to greater clarity regarding priorities3.

It’s a Bundle of Skills

‘Disciplined Prioritization’ is actually a bundle of skills. How disciplined any set of priorities is depends on addressing the following 7 factors:

1. Clarity: Has ‘scarcity brought clarity’ to your strategy, project or team? Where is greater clarity needed?

2. Intensity: How to bring a new level of intensity to key priorities / initiatives?

3. Simplicity: How to tackle unnecessary complexity in respect of key priorities and their execution?

4. Hardcore: How to connect your priorities with the core of your business?

5. Trade-offs: What trade-offs have we made / do we need to make?

6. Linkages: How to leverage linkages, dependencies & the synergies between ‘stand-alone’ priorities?

7. ‘Passion!’ How to ensure that people are fired up by the priorities chosen?

You could think of these as 7 different ‘hats’ – a kin to de Bono’s 6 Thinking Hats for lateral thinking / creative problem-solving4.

  1. This is one of the heuristics or biases highlighted in the seminal work of Daniel Kahneman, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013 []
  2. See Bond, Samuel D., et al. “Generating Objectives: Can Decision Makers Articulate What They Want?” Management Science, vol. 54, no. 1, 2008, pp. 56–70. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20122360. Accessed 22 Dec. 2022.  []
  3. ‘Scarcity breeds clarity’ is how Alphabet (Google) CEO Sundar Pichai explained the need for focus and prioritization in a memo to employees in June 2022. []
  4. We ask the members of leadership teams to adopt a particular ‘hat’ through their conversations about strategy and prioritization. The objective is to ensure a more rigorous and disciplined approach to prioritization. []

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