How often does your leadership team talk about priorities? What importance do you place on the act of prioritizing work? When you say “prioritize,” what does it mean?

Just to go all word-nerd on you for a sec, the term priority (and prioritize) comes from the 14th-century word meaning “being earlier.” It literally means this comes first.

Now think about how the term is used in modern-day parlance. When was the last time you saw a list of priorities that was longer than one item? Be honest, was it today? Could you send me screenshots of 5 different places where you’re using the word priority to describe a list of 3, 5, or 15 things?

Now think about it. How is your team supposed to figure out what to do “earlier” than everything else?

So why are leadership teams so prone to having a laundry list of priorities?

Why You Add More to the Plate

There are many reasons why your team might keep adding to the list:

  • You want everyone to know all the things that are important (sensible)
  • You have to worry about all those things so shouldn’t they have to too (less sensible)
  • You don’t want to have the hard discussions about what’s more and less important
  • You think that doing more will make things better
  • You assess your team’s capacity based on your own, very high, capacity
  • You don’t want to take the time to create a different priority list for different stakeholders

What’s Wrong with Doing Good Things?

Is there such a thing as too much of a good thing? Yes, yes there is. If you’ve ever overfilled your plate at a buffet and had to eat salad covered in gravy and cheesecake in salad dressing, you’ll know it’s true. Having too many priorities isn’t just an issue at the buffet, it’s a problem for your team too. Here are a few issues:

  • You dilute everyone’s focus and create a generalized sense of anxiety and overwhelm
  • You miss a chance to create cross-team alignment about what matters
  • You leave the true prioritization up to the layers below who have less expertise or context to make good choices
  • You set up conflicts between departments who interpret the priorities within the priorities differently

Deprioritize, Don’t Just Prioritize

If you’re not supposed to add one exciting initiative after the next, what are you supposed to do? I encourage leadership teams to deprioritize, not prioritize. Here’s what I mean:

  • Each time an important new initiative comes up, revisit the current agreed set of priorities
  • Discuss the scope and resources required for the proposed new activity and identify overlaps with existing commitments
  • Determine if the new activity rises to the level of bumping something off the list
  • Identify one or more activities that you will deprioritize
  • Choose whether you will delete something off the list, delay the start of a priority, distribute the task to a person who is available, diminish the task by reducing its scope to make room for higher priority activity

Benefits

Leaders who get good at deprioritizing will find themselves not only more productive but also more popular. Deprioritizing has the following benefits:

  • Forces the difficult conversations to happen at the table, which reduces the misalignment and dysfunction that otherwise just happens in the shadows
  • Creates a better line of sight to resourcing, allowing you to address resource constraints and build capacity where required
  • Reduces mental clutter, which allows your team to increase their workload by reducing their thoughtload (more on that here)
  • Creates a progression of activities that build on each other, which means you’ll get better traction at first and great momentum later

You’re kidding yourself if you think having a list of 5 priorities is helping anyone. If every single person on your team can’t answer, “what do I need to do first,” then you’ve abdicated your responsibility as a leader.

I’ve talked previously about the importance of leadership teams commissioning work, rather than trying to solve the problem in the room. It turns out, it’s just as important that teams learn to decommission work too. What are you going to delete, delay, distribute, or diminish for your team this week?

 

Further Reading

Why You’re So Busy and How to Ruthlessly Prioritize

10 Tips to Prevent Misalignment from Destroying Trust

5 busy person mistakes to avoid