Priority Refresh — an Open Letter to Leadership

Elizabeth Ayer
Jan 3, 2019 · 5 min read
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Dear Leader,

Communicating priorities is the most important thing you do.

It’s been a while since the strategy was decided. Some parts have been quietly forgotten, and others have increased in importance with new information. The de-facto priorities have shifted a little, and that’s not a bad thing. They’re just a little wilted.

I completely understand that there are good reasons, outside your control, not to do a whole big strategy exercise.

But we need something. Some new information and new ideas have led to the following chain of events:

  1. People aren’t sure how to respond to news: some have pivoted their work, while others are sticking to their original course.
  2. Friction between colleagues has increased under divergent assumptions.
  3. With silence from leadership, they feel they can’t resolve these minor differences. Some have asked for clearer prioritization.
  4. As individuals try to do what’s right, the team’s effectiveness decreases.
  5. In all, the uncertainty makes teams put less energy into strategic priorities and more into internal initiatives that are clearer.

In all, disciplined around the priorities is weakening.

The good news is that teams haven’t strayed far yet, so a simple course-correction will be enough. OK, there’s been some feedback and a few external changes, how should your team respond?

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Menu replacement after Hurricane Katrina. Not minor.

Changes to the Menu

Your job as leader is not to tell everyone how to cook, but it does need you to set the menu. Or more concretely, to create environment where everyone

  • Understands program goals
  • Knows how they can contribute to those goals
  • Knows how to balance the goals against other things they do

Bonus points for getting teams excited as well as focused. Honestly though, while it helps to have an emotional connection to the work, your teams can be effective with professionalism instead of passion.

To communicate the changes, we don’t need much detail, just deltas and a roll-up. What new information has come in? How has the performance of programs been so far? Those are the deltas.

Then the rollup, how would you now tell the story of your strategy and priorities? If this was a little weak before, you can tighten it up by checking for these things:

  1. Are there more than 3 key points? (extremely advanced teams may be able to handle 4. 5 is right out.)
  2. If there are multiple distinct priorities, is there some clear relationship between them? (if none is “most important,” which one should be first chronologically?)
  3. Does every priority really address critical challenge? (if not, consider deemphasizing it)
  4. Is there anything that’s completely obvious? (just leave these out)

There are deeper reasons that your strategy itself might be weak, but here we’re only aiming for some spit and polish. If you’re in any doubt about whether the priorities are clear and actionable, your team is more than happy to help you judge.

I already know, though, that you want to break Rules 1 and 2. You’ve said, “But we have to cover everything,” and “If we say some things are more important, the others won’t happen at all!!!”

Your concerns are well-founded. Unfortunately, the current answer of having several top priorities puts all at risk. That’s what’s going on now, and we can see all the weak-priority effects above.

There’s a different possible answer. You can set some expectations around the priorities, separating areas for progress from places the team just needs to keep the lights on.

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Priorities don’t tell the whole story

You may be cooking the stir fry, but you still keep an eye on the rice. Priorities are like that: you cook some dishes, but still keep an eye on others.

The main difference is active vs passive. The stir fry is the “strategy” or “strategic priority.” Keeping an eye on the rice is often called “operational” or “Business as Usual (BAU),” or sometimes a team’s “Service Level Agreement (SLA).” These are just ways of managing a low level of ongoing or intermittent work.

In your case, one of your priorities is not really a priority, it’s just rice. You need your team to keep an eye on it, attend the occasional meeting, unblock from time to time, and escalate if it bubbles over. But it’s really not something you want them going all Hell’s Kitchen on.

This is a perfect candidate for a Rice List, or Maintenance Tasks: the things that you want teams to keep under control, no more. Keeping “maintenance” visible, but contained, frees up as much time as possible for strategic priorities.

The overall situation might be complex, but this must not leak through to the prioritization. That’s the point of setting a priority: to unlock action by constraining choice. Pick an objective you’d like tackled first. Ideally, there will be some rational basis for it (e.g. urgent vs. important, etc.), but this isn’t always possible. The important thing is to pick one you can stick with for a while.

For the teams, start with the high-level goals for the organization. State a small number of priorities, with an ordering, which explain how the team can meet their part of the goals. If it isn’t already clear, don’t forget the impact of not doing these things, or of doing them later (aka Cost of Delay).

And Voila! Now you’re ready to begin the hard work!

I know you never thought “done” was clicking Send on your Priority Refresh e-mail. You can declare victory, though, once you have reinforced it enough, through your daily behavior, that the prioritization guides decisions even in your absence.

Good luck, dear leader! And may your strategy always be fresh and crisp.

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