The Problem with Priorities

The Problem with Priorities

03.16.10Ron Ashkenas

If everything is a priority, then nothing is.

Everyone knows the problems that arise when kids walk into a candy store: Everything looks so good they want it all, and they end up overdoing it. Unfortunately, practicing self-control doesn't get any easier with age, which might explain why setting a limited number of priorities, and sticking to them, is one of the most difficult challenges facing managers today.

Here's a quick example: The head of a large hospital brought together her direct reports and asked them to create a separate card for each major project or initiative underway. They then placed all of these cards on the wall and realized that, between the ten of them, they had over 150 active projects, many of which were drawing upon the same resources or impacting the same groups. It was no wonder, the team realized, that they were behind schedule and that their people felt overloaded.

Despite the realization that they had too much on their plates (and too many cards on the wall), this leadership team still struggled with narrowing their focus. Many felt that everything was important and nothing could be dropped without serious consequences. But if everything is called a priority, then nothing is. In fact, what's worse is that people at lower levels, faced with the impossible task of trying to respond to everything, end up deciding what is important based on their more limited sense of the company's strategy and their ability to get things done. By not clarifying the few key priorities, leadership teams unintentionally delegate priority-setting to their people. And then they wonder why everyone isn't on the same page.

If you and your team want to do a better job with setting priorities here are four simple – but not easy – steps that you can take:

  1. Use your current portfolio to deduce your real priorities. Most every organization spells out its stated priorities as part of its strategic plan. Over time, however, the clarity of these priorities dissipates as they are translated into actions – and as other projects and initiatives are added for various reasons (e.g. competitive threats, operational problems, customer opportunities). Therefore it is useful to periodically pull your team together to map out all of the projects and initiatives – using cards on the wall like in the hospital example or spreadsheets or lists – and see if they indeed can be categorized under the stated strategic priorities for your unit or for your company. If they fall into the priority buckets, that's great. If not, determine whether the strategic priorities should be shifted.
  2. Force-rank the projects to determine what's really important. Once you have the total picture of the project portfolio, take a hard look at what's really critical. As a thought exercise, give each person 100 "units" that they need to allocate to the various projects individually (without discussion) with an eye toward best accomplishing the strategic priorities. Then compare the allocations and see which projects are considered critical versus "nice to do." This should lead you to the tough discussion of what projects should be dropped or delayed so that the most critical projects get the focus and the resources that they require.
  3. Communicate to the rest of the organization. While this exercise needs to be done at the leadership team level, its outcome needs to be understood by everyone. Your people want to know which projects and initiatives are most important and why so that they can calibrate their efforts accordingly.
  4. Repeat the process periodically. As mentioned above, opportunities, issues and threats will continue to materialize and new projects will emerge, often without the senior team understanding how they got onto the table. Setting priorities is not therefore just a one-time exercise. It needs to be repeated periodically to make sure that you and your people are working on the right things.

What are your suggestions for setting priorities?

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Ron Ashkenas' blog post on Harvard Business Review. Join the discussion.

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