How to Orient Your Teams Around a Culture of Prioritization

By Todd Sanders

A lack of prioritization is the number one cause of organizational failure.

Period. End of statement.

While this may seem to be a bold statement to make as leaders face a litany of social and economic challenges, in my experience I’ve seen that failing to prioritize strikes death blows to organizations in nearly every situation. The fact that the processes, behaviors, and technology which support prioritization are widely understood and available underscores the statement.

The concept of prioritization has influenced me since my days in uniform. Navigating complex environments, often with severely limited resources, set a fertile ground for failure. My practical, on-the-ground experiences with prioritization ignited a desire to understand the structures, processes, and behaviors at a more formal level that eventually led me to McChrystal Group and our Team of Teams operating system.

Upon leaving the Marine Corps, I had the opportunity to advise private, public, and non-profit organizations on operational effectiveness. All these organizations were filled with well-intentioned, smart, and positive people that were unable to take their teams to the next level. I found individuals lost in a sea of options, overwhelmed by choice, and living in reactiveness to the constantly shifting demands of others and a volatile market. I found organizations spinning their wheels, unable to focus and take meaningful action to achieve objectives, all while creating cultures of unnecessary conflict. I saw managers blame their teams for being too passive and missing deadlines. I saw teams nursing whiplash from the constant redirection of effort. It was honestly stunning. Prioritization has been the secret simple tool that helped me and my teams succeed. How had all these good people missed that?

I tended to address and focus on the symptoms as they presented themselves, often at the cost of increasing the overall “health” of the organization. Good progress was made, and people and organizations saw improvement, which was better than where they had started.

My first eye-opening formal experience with prioritization was as an internal leader in a fast-growth organization. I saw firsthand how 'pet projects', 'neat ideas', and poorly structured ‘innovative’ explorations were thrown out the window, replaced with an inclusive, transparent, and structured process to identify critical objectives supported by decisive actions that are properly resourced.

Identify critical objectives. Support with decisive actions. Properly resource.

The beauty of this simple approach is it allows for rich conversations to happen as teams build a more collective understanding of what is needed to achieve success.

A constant thread I have seen among the clients we work with has been their ability to prioritize in order to achieve success. McChrystal Group finds the framework of People, Process, & Technology useful when working with organizations to identify gaps and areas for improvement and the framework can be used in the context of prioritization as well.

People & Behaviors

Incorrectly blaming individual behavior is one of the most pervasive wrongs.

People mean well. People want their work to be meaningful and useful. People crave clarity. Our minds are in a constant state of sensemaking of our environments. There are fewer things more valuable in an organization than the clarity of well-established and communicated priorities. The precision prioritization offers enables impactful behavioral outcomes – increased initiative, empowered execution, and shared ownership in initiatives.

Process

I argue process is the area that has the biggest return on investment in prioritization. Most teams I’ve worked with typically have a process that is a version of this:

  • Leader says ‘this’ is the priority
  • Teammates suggest alternatives
  • Leader says ‘these’ are the priorities
  • Team assumes any conflicts will be resolved in conversation
  • Organization runs off in different directions

In the hundreds of different permutations of this flawed “process,” everyone involved believes they are aligned on the organizational objectives, doing work that matters, and acting with positive intent.

Organizations succeed when they identify a disciplined structure and process to identify, codify, and communicate their priority. Don’t overthink these aspects. Bringing the team together in a session designed to build a process that identifies, codifies, and communicates the priorities will move your organization forward. If you can grab a sharp manager or Chief of Staff to facilitate the session, even better. Only then can conversations guide intentional changes to prioritization.

Technology

There is no doubt that technology plays a critical role in our business environment today. The pandemic served to strengthen that expectation. Yet technology remains unable to create the change organizations need – it can only support. This is especially true in the case of prioritization.

Using technology to set priorities typically falls into communication, relationship, or measurement, with a few tools touching all areas. Communication tools focus on the distribution of prioritization information – email, chat, and even mobile text and phone calls.

Relationship tools map the nesting and supported-supporting nature of cascaded prioritization. Measurement tools track progress and metrics toward targets. While technology varies, the spirit of communication, relationship, and measurement serve as critical aspects of effective prioritization.

What You Can do Today

While prioritization is a complex mix of people, processes, and behavior, it’s a mix that is completely possible to determine. I leave you with 3 simple actions leaders and teammates can take today to move the needle on organizational prioritization –

  1. Identify, codify, and communicate the organization’s priorities – Even if this is a unilateral step by the leader, the benefit of taking action will initiate conversation and refinement.
  2. Talk in the context of prioritization – Language establishes the environment we work in and bringing prioritization into the conversation more frequently will drive thinking surrounding prioritization. The more we talk about prioritization, the more we act on prioritization.
  3. Review prioritization in a consistent cadence – Each organization will find a cadence that meets their needs. Many organizations have seen success with a formal prioritization review quarterly, supported with bi-weekly and monthly check-ins and confirmation of current priorities.

As with many things, I encourage you to be biased to take action.

Visit our Great Prioritization resources page for more actional tools and insights.

Todd Sanders is a Partner, currently leading an engagement with a pharmaceutical company and a telecommunications company, leveraging his background in organizational and leadership development. He is particularly interested in the interaction between process and behavior. His diverse background and interests range from advanced mathematics to digital transformation to psychology to philosophy.

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