Help, I Need Some Priorities!

Much of the time an organization will face multiple tasks or commitments and lack the resources to do all of them at once. Management 101 teaches that the proper response to such a situation is to assign priorities to these tasks so that they are completed in a sequence that reflects their value to the organization. Not exactly rocket science.

However, it seems that one of the more common sources of employee disgruntlement (and disengagement) is around what is perceived as “management’s” ambiguous or nonexistent priorities. It would appear that there is a bit of a gap between the Management 101 theory and what is actually practiced. Why is this?

In theory, an organization has an overarching vision or goal which serves to bring coherence and clarity to the turmoil of day-to-day work. Sometimes this is true. NASA’s Apollo program is a classic example. More often it is not. Large organizations more typically struggle with multiple competing visions or goals. Often overt and covert objectives are mixed together. There is a classic story of a large IT firm which was poised to dominate the then-emerging market for tablet devices. The executives of that firm all agreed on that goal. The release of their product however, was delayed significantly due to competing visions between two executives over who should be “controlling” the product line. The resulting ambiguity meant that key work did not get done in time and gave their main competitor the opportunity to launch a competing product (and seize most of the market).

A key part, perhaps the most important part, of your job as a leader is to provide your team with the situational clarity that they need to work effectively. That means setting priorities. Priorities will always exist. If you don’t articulate what they are, then your team will work on their own version of what they think the priorities ought to be. That doesn’t always work well.

A big challenge is establishing priorities when your boss hasn’t given you any. (This situation can happen a lot.) What do you do then? Here are some ideas (and you can find more here):

  • Have a frank discussion with your boss. Name the fact that you need some clarity on what his or her priorities are. Identify the things that your boss is concerned about which could be impacted negatively if you don’t have this information..
  • Invite your boss to clarify the situation that they are facing. They probably know that they should be setting priorities. What’s getting in the way of them doing so?
  • If all else fails, take the bull by the horns and determine your team’s priorities on your own. Share your decision with your boss. Seeing your prioritization may prompt a very productive discussion between the two of you and some helpful guidance from your boss.
  • Make no decision and hope that your team will somehow figure out what they ought to be doing. (Not recommended.)

Setting intelligent priorities can be hard (and scary) to do, especially in an organization undergoing significant change. Doing so, however, is key to both organizational effectiveness and employee engagement. Would it help to have a thinking partner as you work through the situation that you are facing? Contact me and let’s talk about it!