‘Priorities are like scouts badges’, said the business unit head. ‘They are a badge of honour with ambitious leaders collecting as many of them as possible’, she added.
This surprising observation came in response to data (from Pitstop AnalyticsTM) showing that clarity and alignment regarding priorities were:
- 66% for internal stakeholders
- 68% for the leadership team.
For the leader this data was a call to action. For her, it suggested that people may be out of aligned (and thus pulling in different directions) for up to 4 months of the year (i.e. up to 34% of the time)!
What was the problem / opportunity?
‘How did we get here?' she pondered. ‘How did we end up with a proliferation of priorities and a culture where everything is important?’ she wondered. Then, after a moment of reflection, she continued:
‘Most leaders are given priorities from above in the organizational hierarchy. These priorities are:
- Form of recognition
- Source of power
- Step on their career path
- A means of accessing more resources
- How performance will be measured.
‘New priorities get added, but it is rare that any are removed. Thus, the list gets longer and longer. That is how you end up with a proliferation of projects and initiatives competing for scarce resources. It is not unusual for some leaders and their teams to have up to 30 priorities’.
‘Priorities can become a part of a person’s professional identity. For example, they are the person heading up x or y priority. Moreover, people’s performance will be evaluated based on how the priorities are advanced. All this means that people will pursue the priorities they are given unquestioningly. They likely zealously defend them if they come under threat.
‘So, although everybody knows the danger of too many priorities, it is difficult to say ‘no’’. ‘Priorities are typically not optional. People cannot say ‘no’ or ‘not yet’. Those priorities that drive performance or optimize efficiency are certainly not optional, given slowing growth and increased market uncertainty.
What are the implications?
‘The implication is that we end up with a proliferation of priorities competing for scarce time and resources. The implication is that resources are being dissipated – spread thinly across a long list of priorities, rather than focusing on where it matters most or can have the greatest impact.’
‘People are being pulled in different directions. A proliferation of priorities distracts from what really matters – the real priorities – those that are most connected to business needs and success'.
‘The organization tries to do everything simultaneously rather than sequencing and timing the work on priorities. This can result in false starts and bottlenecks.’
‘The amount of time and energy people have for their work is finite. With every new priority added, people are nudged further towards burnout. Moreover, given the busyness of the day, today find themselves working on strategic priorities happening at the side of the desk’. They are struggling to find an occasional hour found here and there to spend on ‘what should matter most’.
Why not more scrutiny?
‘There is a tendency to rush headlong into a new priority, resulting in a deficit in planning or forethought. There is often a reluctance to ask too many questions or to apply too much scrutiny. That might kill something off before it even gets started. Moreover, it could be misinterpreted as negativity or a lack of enthusiasm.
‘Executives typically don't get to ask or explore:
- If the priorities make sense or not
- If now is the right time to pursue a priority
- If any given priority is connected to or even compatible with the organization’s other priorities
- What resources are required, and if they are available
- If the goal is realistic or even clear’.
‘Asking too many questions could generate doubt and uncertainty. It could result in many committee meetings, presentations, feasibility studies, business case preparation, etc. Why would you willingly bring that on yourself?’ she added in a playful tone. ‘Slow down to speed up is a difficult message to hear’, she said.
What was the goal set?
‘We have to operate in an environment of at least 80% clarity and alignment in respect of priorities' said the leader. ‘Otherwise, there is too much waste – we are not pulling together in the same direction'.
‘In short, we need a more disciplined approach to prioritization‘ the leader added in conclusion.
What solutions were adopted?
There needs to be a way of deciding how priorities are set. Also, how they are reviewed and importantly how they are retired.
Here are some of the principles adopted:
- Prioritize the priorities! Be prepared to make tradeoffs.
- Slow down before adding new priorities!
- Sequence and time priorities or initiatives – they cannot all start at the same time!
- Apply first mile principles – it is not really a priority unless there is a plan and a budget
- Manage priorities as a portfolio – this is key to leveraging synergies and linkages