I get asked this all the time, “How many priorities are too many?”

What would you answer?

I bet it depends on how you define a priority.

What is a Priority?

Based on my informal polling, I’m guessing your definition of a priority is something like “a super important thing that all the bigwigs are getting bonused on, so it damn well BETTER GET DONE!” (Am I close?)

If that’s how you define a priority, I’m gonna say that the maximum advisable number depends on the size, scale, and available resources at your organization, but maybe something like five to eight. I’ve seen seventeen.

But the exact number doesn’t matter because it’s a terrible definition of priority.

To be fair, it’s the definition of priorities you’ve been bombarded with for your entire career. It’s the standard form of business-speak. And it’s likely been the basis of every strategy rollout, town hall, and goal-setting session you’ve attended.

This definition equates priority with importance. Essentially, they are the company’s “very important things.”

The only problem is that’s not what priority was supposed to mean. The word priority comes from the Latin prior, which means former, previous, or first. Priorities are things that come first, literally first in time.

If you define priority as the thing that comes first, you can have exactly one. One priority. Therefore, the answer is that two firsts are too many. Ipso facto three, five, and seventeen priorities are also too many.

“A priority is what goes first. It is not just something important.”

Objections to Prioritization

Cartoon of a man raising his hand saying "Um... Liane"When I share the definition of a priority as “the thing that comes first” and argue that there can only be ONE first, I inevitably see a hand go up in the audience. The hand is usually attached to a face warped into a truly cantankerous pose.

Cantankerous audience member: “Um, Liane, we are a very large and serious and impressive organization; there’s no way we can only have one priority.”

Liane: “Um, yes, you can.”

I’m not suggesting that your very large and serious company accomplish one thing and take the rest of the year off. Of course, you can have a second priority and a third priority. In this case, I’d even be cool with your seventeenth priority. The point is that you focus ruthlessly and relentlessly on one thing, use it to align and create focus across diverse departments, get it done quickly, and then move on to the second priority.

The Power of a Single Company Priority

Over my career, I have seen slow, lumbering organizations that can suddenly deliver a massive, complex project in a flash when it becomes the singular focus.

One of those was a bank. They had a regulatory change to implement and very little time to complete it. The penalties for not doing so were too severe even to consider. Thus, everyone set to work with one non-negotiable first priority.

The basic idea was that if you had any action items related to the project on your docket, you did those before anything else you might have going on that day. Once you had no outstanding items on the regulatory project, you moved on to the second priority on your list. With the single, overriding priority, the weight of the massive organization shifted, momentum built, and they got it done on time.

Why a Single Priority Matters

Some people in your organization will need to work on the priority all day, every day, even for months or years. Interestingly, they are not the problem when it comes to moving rapidly. They know what comes first.

The problem is all the ancillary folks who have small contributions to make. They are the ones who are conflicted because the priority likely isn’t stated in their objectives. Finishing it won’t bring fame or glory to their department. In fact, taking time to do tasks on the priority project will likely delay their own priorities and perhaps even jeopardize the achievement of their goals. It’s THOSE people who will determine whether your priority is accomplished on time or not.

If a clear message comes from the top that this project is the first priority, then every person in the organization knows that anything required of them to accomplish the task needs to take precedence—it needs to be done first.

For example, you might argue that you can have a big commercial product launch as an equal priority with the roll-out of a new ERP system because different people are required. Sure, that’s true of the full-timers. But it’s your auxiliary teams that become the issue. If both projects are beating on the door of finance, which work gets done first? If marketing is supposed to be building the campaign for the imminent roll-out of your snazzy new X73 product and is simultaneously asked to provide subject matter experts to determine the quote-to-cash process in the ERP design, where do they go?

Can You Afford to Do One Thing at a Time?

You might be nervous about doing one thing at a time. You might fret that the competition will soar past you because surely they’re doing so much more.

I’d argue that thinking is backward. Can you afford to leave it up to your employees what project or task matters most? Can you afford to dilute people’s attention and energy as they attempt to multitask on corporate priorities and things on their performance objectives? Can you afford the delays and bottlenecks when departments have competing priorities?

Can you afford NOT to do one thing at a time?

In the next post, I’ll share a process for sorting out competing priorities and getting to a focused task list.

Additional Resources

Prioritize Means Deprioritize

8 Ways to Feel Less Overwhelmed by Your Workload

1 Yes and 3 Less – A Different Way to Look at Prioritization