Even over statements: The prioritization tool that brings your strategy to life

Jurriaan Kamer
Jan 11 · 8 min read

If we asked you what your current work priorities were, could you answer quickly and confidently? What about the priorities of the company at large? If you’re struggling, you’re not alone. It’s difficult to rank to-dos, projects, initiatives, and KPI’s when everything seems vital and pressing.

Prior to the 1940s, the plural term priorities was rarely used. It wouldn’t have made sense; there can only be one priority. However, as having all of the things all of the time became more and more seductive, the notion of the singular priority faded. However, if everything is a priority, nothing is priority. As you’ve no doubt found from your own experience, the “we can have it all” mindset fails frequently as we repeatedly come up short trying to be the best at everything.

A better approach is to make trade-offs explicit, by choosing one thing over another thing. Done well, it will result in focus, clarity, alignment, better decision-making, and competitive edge. We want to share with you a practical method that we often use with our clients: the even over statement.

What are even over statements?

An even over statement is a phrase containing two positive things, where the former is prioritized over the latter.

Even overs can be applied practically anywhere. They can be used in defining a product strategy, company values, team working agreements, or for seeking behavior change. Even overs can help make these things actionable, as they often aren’t.

Here are a few examples:

Product tradeoffs
Exclusive product line even over mass market adoption
Amazing customer service even over new product features
Mobile experience even over desktop experience
Revenue growth even over user growth

Culture tradeoffs
Collaboration even over focus
Progress even over perfection
Honest feedback even over harmony
Impact even over following a plan
Quality even over volume
Hiring team players even over deep experts

It is tempting to phrase even overs as “a good thing even over a bad thing”, for example empathy even over arrogance, but that reduces its usefulness as there is no real trade-off. An even over should be just as valid when reversed. As an exercise, if you were to reverse some of the examples above, can you see how it might affect the resulting outcomes?

Used as heuristics, even overs guide decision-making and help you make conscious trade-offs that bring your strategy to life.

Even overs at The Ready

We couldn’t sing the praises of even overs if we hadn’t used them ourselves, so here’s an example of how they’ve helped us at The Ready. In the Even Over episode of the Brave New Work podcast, Rodney spoke about how even overs were helpful when designing our hiring process. Discussions had been dragging on as we found many candidates matching on skill. The process ground to a halt. If all candidates were basically equal when it came to skill, how could we decide who to hire?

To help narrow the selection, we brainstormed some even over statements. The hiring team came up with: versatility even over depth, ready-to-deploy even over loads of potential, and generative difference even over existing perspective (or more divergence even over ‘less sameness’). Pinning down these preferences helped Rodney and the hiring team define the hiring strategy and pick the right candidates.

Bring your strategy to life

Having a carefully-chosen even over statement not only improves the inner-workings of your business, it helps you stand out among competitors. This is especially true if your statement goes against the grain. Particularly if you want to disrupt an industry, you should be willing to try out a controversial or counterintuitive even over statement. As Rodney says in the podcast, “Articulate your wild idea in your industry. As a customer, those are the things that will delight you, and many of these priorities stem from counterintuitive trade-offs.”

An example of a business rejecting convention is Airbnb. In the hospitality industry, service and facilities have traditionally been favored over living as locals do. Airbnb flipped this idea around and it would be safe to assume that they prioritized the experience of being a local even over facilities/hospitality. Their controversial choice disrupted an entire market.

Taking a look at a couple more examples of even overs in the business world, one of Amazon’s even overs appears to be market share even over profit. Dominating the market was more important to them than turning a handsome profit from the get-go. If you look at In-N-Out Burger, the company has a short menu compared to other fast food chains. They’re likely to have an even over of simplicity/operational efficiency even over variety, as efficiency and speed are central to their business (as their name implies).

To help you see your business through an even over lens, look at different companies in your neighbourhood or online and try to pin down their even overs. Then think of your own business, how can you define your territory by prioritizing something that your peers aren’t?

There must be a way to have it all, though!

It’s not uncommon for business leaders to claim they can neither deprioritize anything nor make trade-offs. Behind this thinking is the flawed premise that trade-offs aren’t happening in the first place. But take it from us: trade-offs are always happening whether you notice them or not.

Take a multimillionaire looking to buy a new home. Although she has all the opportunity that wealth brings, she still has to decide whether she wants to purchase a property downtown, next to the beach or on a ranch. While she might be able to buy all three, they’ll be different houses in different locations, and she can’t live in them at the same time. Think of your own trade-offs when you chose your living space. Which qualities were most important to you? Good schools even over good restaurants? A spacious kitchen even over an extra bedroom?

“Theories of constraints apply, physics applies, and we do have to make choices.” — Aaron Dignan in our podcast

Your power lies in choosing your trade-offs consciously. If you don’t choose your own trade-offs, the world around you will decide them for you.

Choosing a priority can result in a win-win

While you can’t have it all, prioritizing one thing doesn’t mean you automatically sacrifice the other. As the sustainable outdoor clothing company Patagonia discovered, occasionally you can end up satisfying both sides of your even over by making an explicit trade-off.

In 2011, Patagonia ran a Black Friday ad campaign featuring one of their jackets underneath a heading that read, “DON’T BUY THIS JACKET.” Below was a plea to Black Friday shoppers to buy consciously, part of which read: “Because Patagonia wants to be in business for a good long time — and leave a world inhabitable for our kids — we want to do the opposite of every other business today. We ask you to buy less and to reflect before you spend a dime on this jacket or anything else.” Patagonia’s implicit even over was sustainability even over profit.

The ad was so successful that sales of the jacket soared. Whether or not they predicted so many people would buy the jacket, meaning that they succeeded in their eco-initiative as well as adding to their profit, is hard to know for sure. The point is that they chose their bold stance from the outset. It was this choice that yielded a positive result in both directions.

How to define even overs with your team

If you’re keen to see how you can use even overs in your business, give it a try with your team. You can do this is before each quarter, when chartering a project, or when defining your strategic intent. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Gather your team. Get people into the right mindset with some warm-up questions. For example, What even overs did you apply when choosing where you live? What are your even overs when you eat out at a restaurant? What did you prioritize when you were dating?
  2. Bring the focus back to work and ask what you, as a team, need to prioritize in order to achieve your goals.
  3. Ask your team to generate as many ideas as they can using paper or digital sticky notes. If people can pinpoint a priority but they don’t know what the trade-off is, that’s fine. They can start with the value on the left and you can work out the other later. For example, they may know that diversity should be prioritized but they might be unsure what the trade-off is.
  4. Check for understanding and ask any clarifying questions.
  5. Simplify and group ideas to find appropriate even overs and then vote on which are most relevant. Favor the most pertinent, motivating, and differentiating even overs for your teams and business.
  6. Nominate someone or a group to propose three or four even overs to the rest of the group.
  7. Seek consent within your team.
  8. Give yourself a time frame, commit to your even overs, and test them out. Review them every quarter, and revise them based on what you’ve learned.

Allow space for debate, counterpoints, and explanation but don’t be afraid to be bold. It can be freeing and energizing to be candid about what you prioritize. Stating, “happy clients by working outside office hours even over work-free evenings and weekends” might not be popular, but it does clarify expectations.

Aligned autonomy

When done well, even overs will result in better decisions being made at every level. How to do it? Start by having leaders propose a set of even over statements for the organization or team of teams. Then invite teams to ask questions and shape them further.

By using this participatory process, you ensure the trade-offs make sense when put into practice. Also, it reduces the need for teams to rely on leaders for approval for every individual decision, as the even over statements help them to make the right choices on their local level. It scales good decision making, increases alignment and focus while keeping autonomy.

We’d love to hear your even overs, so comment below and let us know what you’re prioritizing for the next quarter!

I work at The Ready: an organization design and transformation partner that helps you discover a better way of working. This article is co-authored by Clare Wieck and was based on the contents of the Even Over episode of our Brave New Work podcast, hosted by Aaron Dignan and Rodney Evans.

The Ready

Lessons from our quest to change how the world works.

The Ready

Lessons from our quest to change how the world works. Topics include org design, self-organization, and dynamic teaming.

Jurriaan Kamer

Written by

Org design & transformation | Author of ‘Formula X’ | Speaker | Future of Work. Partner at The Ready

The Ready

Lessons from our quest to change how the world works. Topics include org design, self-organization, and dynamic teaming.