How many of you have heard the phrase or been told to, “get your priorities straight!”? I am guessing many of you. It was probably a parent, teacher, or other authority figure. The phrase was likely included as a diatribe on how you were not meeting their expectations. The problems with this phrase and its common use are many. Chief among the flaws are; 1) It assumes that your priorities and their priorities are aligned and the same 2) It assumes that you are privy to the speaker’s priorities and 3) it is accusatory. A much better approach would be to ask the question, “How does what you are currently doing align with your priorities?” The question is the pathway to conversation and clarification that leads to lasting change. It links words and actions.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “It’s not just words. Action expresses priorities.” This is as true in your personal life as it is in business and work as well. The trouble begins when people do not agree on what items are priorities in a given situation and when actions are not aligned with language. This is when the earlier phase from the first paragraph gets invoked. It is important that organizations can clearly state their priorities and that those priorities are made clear in the actions that they take. Most organizations go through some sort of process to state their priorities in the form of a mission, vision, and goals and then ideally act on them through the projects they choose to do (actions). This is where strategic planning, capital improvement plans, and the like come into play. The plan is the statement of the priorities and the projects are the actions.
A priority is defined as “something important that must be done first or needs more attention than anything else” or “the importance that you give to something that must be done” (https://www.macmillandictionary.com/us/dictionary/american/priority). The root word, prior, strongly implies an ordinal element. In order something to be a priority, there must be something else for it to come prior to. Thus priorities, by their very nature, are quantifiable. It should be easy, right? We all know it is not though. Organizations often struggle identifying their priorities and aligning them with action. There are ideological roadblocks such as “this is what we have always done”, and biases generated by personal attachment to ideas and projects, or political obligations, or attached funds. Therefore, many groups choose to hire consultants to navigate the morass. The external solution is touted as more objective. Yet, in reality, it is a game of shifted blame that does not address the fact that leadership does not actually have a good system or proper tools for choosing priorities and projects.
The number one reason that public and private organizations struggle in choosing priorities is that they start with the projects, move to budget and then get around to priorities and values when they inevitably have to cut something from the list. The irony is that they fail to prioritize choosing priorities. A great metaphor for this is furnishing a house.
Let’s assume that you have a new home and have placed your old furniture in it. You would love to embrace the midcentury modern aesthetic and have a budget to buy new items to fill in missing pieces and possibly upgrade some worn out items. A traditional organizational approach is to do an asset inventory, identify the items in the worst condition and the new needs and then to shop for furniture and create a wish list of items with prices attached. Then you look at the list and identify the mandatory items (have to have a dining table to eat at, but a sleeper isn’t necessary) and then rank order the items. Then you go to the budget and allocate dollars until you are out of money. In this case you have chosen a need/urgency based prioritization. This approach has its place and often fulfills the base need. However, while you will have the furniture you need, you will struggle to find an identifiable design direction or unifying theme. Ideally you will hire an interior designer to develop a coordinated plan around an agreed upon design aesthetic and then strategically switch out piece as budget allows, taking urgency into consider action as well. The difference in these two approaches is that, the first scenario is actually prioritizing buying furniture, while the second scenario is prioritizing a vision with the furniture as an end to that mean. The second path is a case of “action expressing priority”. Such a short phrase yet it is so on point. Projects are NOT priorities. The actions we take are pointless if they are not working toward advancing our larger priorities.
All is not lost! Tune in to our next post to learn about the science behind developing priorities and how this helps us make better decisions. If you just cannot wait until then…check out our process at Allovance.com for some hints.