This blog was written by Robin Anselmi
It seems most everywhere I go, with most every client I spend time with, what I hear over and over again is how ‘overwhelmed’ everyone is. Too much work, too many meetings, too many emails, too much chaos. Employees at all levels are crying out for ‘prioritization,’ seeing that as the solution to the feeling overloaded. This is true even at the executive level, though theoretically, they have the power in the system to do the actual prioritization and, I believe in most cases, the skills to do so. So, what’s stopping organizations from setting clear priorities right now? I have one theory…
I’m a casual, sometimes gardener. In the early days of the pandemic, I planted a small butterfly garden. It’s been something that gets me outside and gives us something pretty to look at in the back corner of our yard. At the end of each season, many of the plants need a good pruning to ensure they grow back strong the following year. I am HORRIBLE at this part. Just horrible. I don’t have much of a green thumb to start with, so putting in the effort and watching these tender little plants to grow has felt like a major success. And now I’m supposed to cut them back?!? Cut back healthy, beautiful plants? Given my attachment to them, I’m tentative and rarely trim them sufficiently.
It’s a similar challenge to the one many organizations face in setting clear priorities. The hard part isn’t setting the priorities—it’s what we have to say no to in order for those priorities to make a real difference in the value and experience of our work. If you have a list of 50 priorities, those are NOT priorities. A priority by definition is “the fact or condition of being regarded or treated as more important.” Having 50 projects that are “more” important means it’s very unclear how to make real tradeoffs when time, money, or talent becomes constrained.
Being able to say that a project, initiative, or focus area is MORE important than others is really, really challenging. It gets even more challenging when we shift priorities—meaning something we chose to dedicate time, money and talent to is no longer going to get those resources.
Setting clear strategic priorities means we need to have deep alignment about where we’re heading, and what we’re trying to accomplish. Then we need clarity and alignment around how we envision getting there. We also need to be realistic about the inevitability of changes in circumstances, things that require us to make adjustments as conditions change. (If you have been around us at all, this should sound incredibly familiar: Align-Act-Adjust)
I often get asked if there’s a prioritization framework we recommend. Yes, of course, those are helpful, and there is a plethora of them available. However, I don’t think it’s the framework that most organizations are lacking, or the skills needed to put one to use. We just have a hard time pruning. I get it! Those “pruning” conversations are not easy and can be incredibly challenging. If at the core of prioritization is declaring what’s more important, there are going to be people who are impacted by that decision, for better or for worse. People who have been working really hard on something, possibly putting in 10’s or 100’s of hours, not to mention the personal energy and care, to make that project a success. Or maybe they’ve built a business line or a new product and now there needs to be a conversation about why that this is no longer the thing that’s “more” important. Maybe someone has a fantastic new idea, but to fulfill it would mean moving resources away from other strategic needs.
We say it over and over: The conversations are the work. Setting clear priorities means also being clear about why something else is no longer going to get the same support. That could be explaining how stopping one project will free up valuable resources (including people’s time!) for something that is critically important to the organization’s collective future. It could also be having a conversation about why the shift matters to employees, customers, and other stakeholders. And by the way, if it’s my idea or project that’s getting cut, I might be disappointed or frustrated. That’s just the experience of being human. Give those people some time to digest the decision and your explanation, and some space to think it through. Being well aligned with the organization’s direction does not mean I have to like every decision. I don’t have to personally like a decision in order to acknowledge and respect why it’s smart and necessary in the context of our shared goals.
We’re coming up on the time of year for budget-setting conversations, which is a great opportunity to think about prioritization and what that will mean realistically when it comes to the allocation of finite resources like time, money, and talent. Spend time with your teams getting clear about what is most important to focus on given your goals. It’s tempting and exciting to share new ideas and talk about all the possible ways you could grow and improve in the year ahead, but it’s just as important (if not more so) that those conversations are followed up with getting clear on what activities or projects are going to get material support, and which ones won’t. Then you have to make sure those less important projects really do stop happening (or, said another way, stop taking up valuable resources that could be directed towards the more important things).
Setting clear priorities isn’t just a best practice, it’s a gift that leaders can bring to their teams. Getting really good at this may not relieve all of the overwhelm you’re experiencing today, but it is an absolutely necessary step in getting there. It will allow your teams to focus their energy more fully on the things you know will impact your most important goals most efficiently. Spreading resources too thin across a long list of projects waters down impact. Instead, tend to a smaller number of important things, and celebrate the growth and success that focus affords. You’ll have more energy (and more resources to reinvest) down the road.