Prioritizing What’s Important

Long-time readers know I recommend creating an alignment-focused organization as the fundamental way to improve performance. As I’ve said in many publications (BPM Magazine, Information Management, CxO magazine),

To do so, organizations must motivate their employees with integrated and cascaded objectives, manage priorities based on impacts rather than perceived urgency, monitor progress towards outcomes, and measure both operational and financial performance.

While I’ve railed on the problems with bad measurements, I haven’t spent as much time talking about the challenges of poor prioritization. In most organizations, priority is given to projects with the most political capital or those that are the furthest behind schedule, rather than to projects with the highest impact. Since many projects do not have an explicit link to a specific objective, it is difficult to determine impact and prioritize between projects that compete for resources. This is why true performance management solutions must include initiative management.

In an environment in which we’re all too busy to accomplish everything in a given day or week, prioritization is as much about what we choose not to do as what we do. Without clear direction, my experience is that employees focus on smaller, familiar tasks with short-term deadlines. They confuse these urgent tasks with potentially more important ones. I call this the tyranny of the urgent.

The alternative is both difficult and transformational. By tying virtually every task to a strategic initiative that supports a specific organizational objective, companies provide clear line of sight into how each employee fundamental helps the organization achieve its mission. Not only is this truly motivating for employees, but it also helps organizations evolve beyond operational efficiency (i.e., “do the work right”) to emphasize strategic effectiveness (i.e., “do the right work”).

Imagine if everyone in your organization was working on the highest priorities towards a common cause.

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15 Responses to Prioritizing What’s Important

  1. Oski May 11, 2009 at 12:31 pm #

    A while back, I did notice I had this exact same problem. I was very busy but I realised my projects were drifting towards completion as opposed to being driven more aggressively.

    One of the reasons was I was a slave to my email inbox. I prided myself on keeping a tidy inbox by quickly responding to any request that came in. Unfortunately, this often meant that critical tasks took a back seat to less important but urgent work.

    The solution I found is to keep a daily list of things that need to get done. This list can not exceed three items – forcing conscious ruthless prioritization. Everything else goes into an “I’ll get to it sometime later” folder where all requests sit until I decide I have some free time to spare.

    On the flip side, realizing lots of other people have the same tendency as I used to, it’s quite easy to “borrow” other peoples’ time and resources by filling up their inboxes and calendars with requests to help move your own agenda forward. (As you can tell, I still struggle to use my powers for good only!)

  2. Mo May 15, 2009 at 11:00 am #

    I think it’s hard to get everyone aligned to the same priority when the overall objectives are not clear and stable. In most organization priories change not only based on who you talk to but also on when you talk to him/her. Employees find it hard to focus on the organizational priorities when they can not translate these priorities into activities and reconcile it with their day-to-day conflicting and sometimes competing goals. I agree with you that it has to start by transparency and clear communication from the top but we also have to find ways to help employees translate overall objectives into understood and attainable tasks that they accomplish in the course of work day, week, or month.

  3. Jonathan May 20, 2009 at 4:43 pm #

    Mo, cascading overall priorities to individual objectives is indeed crucial. It’s the least understood part of performance management. See some of my older posts on cascading, if you’re interested.


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