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The top priority of any leader at any level should be to take care of their people and others around them. The remainder of the priorities that are invested in are some of the most important decisions leaders make.

Prioritization is key to success as a leader and a company. I’m going to bust some prioritization myths, get down to the roots of what prioritization is, why it is a critical aspect of strong leadership, and some methods of prioritization.

Prioritization is the key to effective organizational direction and success

Prioritization is not ordering projects or work starting at one and then having the lowest item at the bottom of the list. Simply ordering a list of projects or work is called sequencing. It isn’t ‘focusing on the top 3 items’ either. That really just means that there are ‘three number 1s’. Prioritization means choosing the projects that your teams invest in rather than other ones. It means to choose not to work on projects as well. The distinction is important. As a leader, you must decide what projects will be funded and completed instead of other ones. Demand for work and projects will always outstrip an organization’s capacity.

Prioritization will happen

…regardless of whether or not leaders determine and communicate priority. As a leader, if you do not choose the priority, it will be chosen for you. There are only so many hours in a day and only so many resources (time, people, money, etc) an organization has. You can demand the team to ‘get everything done’ and then be disappointed when it doesn’t. Leaders who disagree (with evidence of success with constantly pushing teams) can get only so far pushing teams past their normal capabilities so long until they collapse. This can lead to lots of bad results like low morale, poor quality, and lack of engagement. This ultimately will lead to a slow death spiral of the organization which requires substantial investment to turn around.

Prioritization can’t be ignored

…you can’t stop it from happening. Virtually all modern knowledge workers finish their workday (whatever that really means these days) with work undone. In other words, every day something is left on the table for the next day. As a leader, your responsibility is to lead and coach your teams to choose what is done and what’s left on the table. If your teams aren’t directed on what the priorities are, they will ultimately decide on their own — at the team member level. If you don’t prioritize for your teams, they will do it for you by simply working on what they feel is most important (or what they like the most, or what’s easiest, or something else) and then leave the rest on their desk for tomorrow – or perhaps never.

Prioritization is making tough choices

…organizations typically have a lot of great ideas and projects that deserve attention. Leaders must decide what the organization should work on and more critically, what they should not work on. This means choosing what projects will get done and which ones won’t. If a new – and super-critical project arrives, leadership has a responsibility to decide if that should be done in favor of other work that may already be underway. This is choosing the ultimate value of one project (usually return on investment) which is greater than another project with less ROI. This is what opportunity cost is all about. Organizations have a limited number of resources and time and how both of those are invested in work — ultimately determines the success of the organization. Directing teams not to work on projects is the harder and one of the strongest value-add leaders can provide for their organizations.

Stronger leaders let their teams know the process of how prioritization is done and set expectations that priorities change. The more the team understands the process, the more effective the team can be.

Prioritization hurts

…and people don’t like it! One of the strongest leaders I ever worked for taught me a valuable lesson about prioritization many years ago. I had spent the weekend working on a presentation to update him and the rest of the department on my team’s work. We had made significant strides over the past few weeks and hit a major milestone. We were about halfway through the project plan and I was super proud of the team and their accomplishments as we were on time and under budget. When the presentation was over everyone was excited about the work done and what was next. I know there was a problem since my boss wasn’t asking questions. That was a clear sign from him that something wasn’t quite right and was waiting till after the meeting to discuss it. When he finally tracked me down he shared that while the team was making great progress, the project needs to be dropped. There was something new that had come up and would drive more value and needed to be prioritized over what we were doing. It wasn’t a popular decision since we all enjoyed what we were working on- but ultimately the correct decision. Being a strong leader means saying ‘no’ to projects – no matter how much people like the project or even if it is successful.

Prioritization is a process done on a regular basis

It should not be a once a year (or every six months) activity. Effective organizations have regular prioritization discussions as demand, resources, opportunities, and risks change regularly as well. It should be an intentional and thoughtful process and discussion. When I use the word ‘discussion’ that’s intentional as it should be a collaborative process rather than something done in a vacuum. The primary stakeholders should have the opportunity to work together to determine the prioritization of their organizations – together.

The best prioritization efforts I have been a part of (either naturally or deliberately) align closely with Agile. Constant reviews of what is being worked on, what is on the backlog (waiting – perhaps forever), and what’s next is super effective. Having the prioritized projects documented and shared with all stakeholders is incredibly effective. Getting to those answers is challenging for many organizations and there are several proven methodologies.

Two of many great prioritization tools

The Eisenhower Method is one of my favorite quick and dirty – and super effective approaches to prioritize items. Stephen Covey adopted this philosophy in his famous book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (absolutely a must-read). Essentially it boils down to thinking about a project (or issue, task, etc) and determining how urgent it is and how important it is. Those items then get put into a 2×2 matrix where items that are urgent and important get done first and items that are not urgent and not important may never get done. The more effective you are, the more time you spend on on items that are important but not urgent (quadrant 2). This seems a bit counterintuitive as items important and urgent should be done first. However, those items are typical ‘fire drill items and while they are ‘must do’ items, they are typically painful projects. As teams become more effective, items that are important become less urgent and are planned.

Another method that is effective is the agile tool known as “Weighted Shortest Job First”. This method attempts to take the inputs that are usually intuition or experienced-based and quantify them. The formula is WSJF = “Cost of Delay” / “Duration”. Cost of delay is typically calculated by adding user-business value, time criticality, and risk reduction and/or opportunity enablement value. The team numerically estimates the value of each item and then calculates which projects are prioritized. If you want to learn more, check out the Scaled Agile Framework page on WSJF.

There are a lot more tools out there to help leaders and organizations prioritize. The context of your process will drive which method works for you. Ultimately, as long as you are making those choices of what work must be, should be, and not be done – that’s is evidence of effective prioritization.

Post Author: Jason Goldfeder

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