If you’ve ever stayed to finish a report instead of heading off to lunch, gone for a morning run instead of grabbing an extra 20 minutes in bed, or sat through a kid’s school play, you’re familiar with setting priorities.
Setting priorities at work isn’t just about choosing to do one thing over another; it’s about choosing to do important things first so that you can achieve your long-term goals. Once priorities are established, they help us to stay organized and on-task.
We are most familiar with individuals setting goals and choosing priorities, but teams and organizations can do so as well. This means that we often have to work with others to set priorities, and then be able to communicate them clearly. That is where many professionals run into problems.
Setting and communicating priorities at work doesn't need to be so problematic, though, if you can stay focused and follow these best practices:
Make a habit of reassessing them. Good leaders and good managers both recognize that you can’t tackle everything, all the time. They also take time out to stand back, assess their situation, and re-evaluate priorities. Sometimes a project or practice that seemed pressing or crucial six months ago will fade in importance with time. Likewise, new opportunities will present themselves, and new priorities need to be set to take advantage of them.
Write them down! There is something about the act of writing things down that gives our ideas a feeling of permanence and importance. As you mentally create your list of priorities, write them down. Try to put them in some sort of rough order.
Identify and meet with stakeholders. Nobody is perfect. Your own assessment of what is important might be skewed by your own interests and perspective. You also might not have all the information you need to set objective priorities. So, once you have a set of what you think are priorities, meet with others who also have skin in the game to see if they would have set priorities differently.
Clarify activities and roles. Once priorities are set, they must be communicated. This can be harder than it seems, especially if they are abstract. For example, if your priority is “solidify our market position,” people could interpret this in a variety of ways. One person might understand it as fending off the competition, while another sees it as expanding into new markets. When you find a way to effectively communicate your priorities, you will create a larger task force at accomplishing them.
Be as concrete and specific as you can. Focus on stating priorities as activities (“Make 7 sales calls a month,” “Bring the software into the beta testing phase,” “Hire 3 new account managers,” and so on.) Make sure that each person has a clear grasp of what his or her part in these activities is and how his or her role matches up.
Make a commitment. If your priorities constantly change, they aren’t really priorities. Setting them forces us to sometimes choose one course of action over another or one activity over another. If you or your team does not make a commitment to them, they will be too easily changed or ignored.
…but build in some flexibility. Still, every good plan also allows for some flexibility in meeting its goals. Priorities can change as the situation changes, or as sub-goals change in their relative importance. For example, a sales team might have a specific goal of hitting 50 new accounts in a given quarter. So, they prioritize prospecting activities and sales training to improve closing rates. What happens, though, if they find out that the product being sold becomes subject to a recall? Or, what should they do upon learning that, although new accounts are increasing, existing accounts are closing at a faster rate? Priorities are about matching time-intensive activities with goals, so as these change, priorities naturally change as well.
Set the example. Consciously or unconsciously, employees will follow the example of their leaders. Show your commitment to your stated priorities by walking the walk. Make some hard decisions, and put off some activities so that you can focus on priorities yourself. They will notice and follow along.
*Bonus* The big rocks method. Sometimes, the hardest part of setting priorities is getting your team to focus on them amidst the “chaos” of the workday. Setting too many —or too many meetings to discuss priorities— only makes this worse.
So here’s something to try, based on the story of a philosophy professor making a point about our priorities in life. (If you haven’t heard the story, do watch the video—it takes just over a minute.) The story teaches us that, if you make room for the large, important things, there will be room for the “small stuff,” but not vice versa. So, for every meeting or workday, start off with a statement of what the “three rocks” are going to be—those things that will make your team feel like they have accomplished something, even if nothing else gets done. (You don’t need to stick with three. You can have two, or four, or five…whatever makes sense for your team.)
By focusing everyone on the “three big rocks,” you’ll hit home the point that there are certain mission-critical priorities that must be addressed for the team to have a truly “full” workday.