Four approaches, no solutions…

In the last issue, I described the four most widely accepted approaches to prioritisation – together with why each tends to fail:

1.  The strategy approach

Stands aside from the organisation and decides the most important things that have to be done. (But almost always tends to exacerbate overload by adding new priorities to what’s already going on).

2.  The sorting approach

Lists all of the things that are currently happening, then consolidates and organises them. (But tends to simply aggregate things together into ‘mega priorities’ and fails to remove much from the list.)

3.  The time management approach

Uses the concept of personal time management to address the problems of pressures on key individuals. (But doesn’t address the problems of interdependencies or organisational prioritisation.)

4.  The ‘stop doing things’ approach

Demands that some activity is identified and eliminated or deferred. (Obviously a necessary end but very rarely are candidate activities identified or deprioritised – and doesn’t deal with interdependencies or individual needs/agendas).

The leaders I meet know that by trying to do so much, they achieve less. Almost all important initiatives are compromised by inadequate resources. None make as much difference as they should. In most cases their delivery is delayed. Too often, they never come to fruition at all as the business need moves on before they can deliver.

The key to unlock the door?

So which of the four approaches is right? The answer is yes! Each of the approaches above has merit. All elements have to be present in the solution.

  • You have to have a strategy.
  • You need to consider the requirements from this against everything else that’s going on.
  • You must consider the bottlenecks represented by the individual capacity of key people.
  • At some point, you have to get to the stage of stopping, or delaying, some activity.

Three of these elements are relatively simple. One is much harder.

As ever it’s the human dimension which is central to cracking open the problem. Every organisation I have worked in has its rate of progress limited by the inability of a small group of key people to take on any more work. This usually includes most of the top team and a handful of senior people outside it.

These people are the point where strategy meets implementation. They are the point at which thinking becomes doing. Ideas can only be translated into action as fast as these few individuals can process the work. They are usually talented, motivated and productive.

The latter two qualities, whilst desirable, are also a big part of the problem. The key people are usually so dedicated that they will keep accepting ever more work (even when to do so compromises what they are already committed to) – and so productive that there is little more to get from them by being more efficient.

Truly prioritising means dealing with the work on the desk of these few leaders. Doing so means working through, with them, what’s planned – and looking again at the organisational agenda through the lens of their capacity. Since most of them are in the leadership team, this is the best place to start.

Rethinking prioritisation in practice – a story.

I was deeply worried. I’d been working with a client for some months. In the run up to the latest meeting I was hearing worrying things. Having made some great progress with helping the team work together, behaviours had started to deteriorate. Tensions were high and a number of big issues were coming to a head. Of even greater concern were reports that at least two of the team had been suffering health problems and it sounded like more might be about to go the same way.

The pressures on the organisation and team were high. Their market was going south and their numbers were following. There was a huge amount going on and they were all working incredible hours to fight fires, whilst also advancing the big business change initiatives that were needed to find a way out of their situation.

They had a strategy, and some months before, we’d sorted the new strategic initiatives alongside all of their existing activity to come up with their eight major priorities. This had been very helpful for a time but they were now all starting to sink again under the pressure of work. They knew they needed to stop some things – but every attempt to identify this had, so far, failed.

We did something different. Rather than reprise the strategy or look again at activity across the organisation, we looked at the workloads of the team members. They each listed the biggest things that they were wrestling with – both from the strategy and within the current activity in their own area. Long lists were generated on flipcharts and the details explained. After a couple of hours, we all understood the full picture across the team. It was plainly unachievable.

We had to think again. I asked each team member to spend some time alone to revisit their list – but this time in the knowledge of everything they knew about the loads on everyone else. They were to propose a revised list that they were confident of delivering. They were invited to be creative and to consider any and every way to reduce their own list, including:

  • Re-scope or reduce
  • Stop completely
  • Defer
  • Add or move people
  • Move the work
  • Delegate
  • Outsource

Each then re-presented their list. Without exception, they were all still too long. The rest of the team were briefed to help. They were told not to accept any list that didn’t look credible – and to help with ideas for how that could be achieved.

We worked through each list in turn. The conversations were tough – but supportive. A wide variety of solutions were generated. Interdependencies were understood and worked through. Individuals let go of their personal priorities in service of an achievable load for others and for the total picture. It was hard work, but, by the end of it, a large number of important decisions had been made. We finally had a set of lists that both looked achievable in workload and that would also deliver what the business needed.

Afterwards, the sense of relief was palpable. Anxiety had been replaced by optimism. There was still a lot to do. But it was now do-able. People took me aside afterwards to say how pleased they were with the outcome.

In addition to the new lists of work, relationships in the team were better than ever. They had appreciated the pressures on one another more fully than ever before, forgiven one another for their responses to that pressure and had felt the very real support of every other colleague to get to a manageable agenda.

Within a month, their performance numbers had taken a dramatic upturn. It would be naive to think that this was the product of a single meeting. It’s also extremely unlikely that a group of happier, more focused, less stressed leaders with enough time to move the key initiatives forward had nothing to do with it.

Unlocking true prioritisation in your team

The approach described above is not intellectually difficult. It is, however, demanding in interpersonal terms – and it does take time. A genuinely achievable agenda for the organisation and individuals is immensely valuable and has the potential to be transformational.

How far could you go if you knew that the really important initiatives in your organisation were all going to be delivered, on time and to the standard that you wanted?

I hope you can use these ideas yourself. If you’d like some help even if only to think through how you might do so, then please get in contact on 0845 519 7871 or by email.

Read more

Please visit our website to read more about The Six Conversations Leadership Team programme or download our article, the Seven Illusions of Leadership which shows what it looks like in practice – based around a real case study.
Better still, give us a call on 0845 519 7871 to explore your issues further or to arrange a free Strategy Session.

Chris Henderson