When everything's a priority, nothing's a priority

It was late on a Wednesday afternoon a couple of weeks ago, and I was about to fly from Melbourne to Sydney on Virgin. As I walked up to the boarding gate, I could see a long queue of people. Great, I thought to myself, I wish I’d clocked up enough points to be able to jump into the Priority Lane.

Then, I did a double take as I realised that the queue was the priority lane. And you know what… the general boarding lane was empty! Completely empty. Had the world gone mad? (Not that I was complaining; I casually sauntered into the General Boarding lane and was on the plane in a flash.)

Priority Proliferation

The Everyone’s-a-Priority-Lane-Member is not so different from a lot of the companies I work with. In the race to be number 1, organisations and leadership teams cram their agenda with all kinds of projects, actions and… well, stuff. And suddenly, the queue of “priority actions” is so long, no one knows where to start. Not only does this create a productivity problem, it also generates a huge amount of “noise” in the company that makes it difficult for teams to negotiate with one another on projects and resources. In the absence of clarity across the company about what should take precedence, poor decisions get made, teams lock horns and more decisions end up getting escalated up the management tree.

Supercharged teams and companies are crystal clear on their real priorities. And that means clarity about what comes first. After all, the very meaning of the word priority is “the state of being prior to something else”. I don’t know what the guy at the back of the Virgin priority queue was thinking, but he wasn’t going to be boarding before me.

So here’s what I suggest...

Next time you or your team are identifying key actions for a period of time - whether it’s for a project, a week, the next 90 days or a full year - set up 3 categories: A (top priority), B (next in line) and C (next in line again). Now allocate every action as either A, B or C. So far, pretty straight forward, right? But if you’re like a lot of teams, you’ll end up with a bunch of “priorities” in category A. So here’s where the hard part kicks in:

You can choose one “A” priority only. That’s right, there can only be one item sitting in category A. And once you’ve had that argy-barge, there can only be one “B” priority. Now – you guessed it - you get to choose the one “C” priority (unless by this stage you’ve got enough on your plate as a team).

It seems simple, but the debate this can provoke in a team is often pretty telling. And if you don’t have the debate now, it’s one that will play out on a daily basis for the next 90 days. Or even worse, at the end of the period when nothing’s been done properly and people are tearing their hair out because they can’t get the cooperation they need from others.

To quote Henry David Thoreau, “It’s not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?”

Would love to know, how is Priority Proliferation affecting your team?



Thanks to Robert S. Donovan for the photo in this month's post.