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Posted by on Sep 22, 2010

“It’s All a Priority”

It is time to put something in writing that is at the very heart of an unbelievable amount of organizational angst, confusion and turmoil. I hear it in practically every group I work with, and it is extracting a huge toll on employees. Without question, it is worsening.

To kick this off, let’s imagine the prototypical scene when you see an incoming on the work radar, are already juggling multiple priorities, and you ask your boss, “What’s the priority?”

When I ask groups what they hear when they ask their bosses this, the room always answers in unison: “It’s all a priority.”

As my teen daughter would say, “Let’s review.”

First, the root of the word “priority” is “prior.” It means something comes before something else. I don’t know mathematically how everything can come before everything, but then again, I was never very good in math. Maybe it’s just me.

But second, try explaining this concept to anyone managing triage in an emergency room, or to an air traffic controller. It doesn’t make sense.

Third, I can share that when I have worked with effective leaders, there were times when I noticed things not working well in their organizations. Maybe customer service was weak, or IT fragile. When I would bring these to the attention of these leaders, they would quickly acknowledge the situation (rather than denying or blaming). What they also said was where they were currently focusing effort and energy. They said they could not get to these problem areas until other initiatives were finished. Maybe next quarter, or next year. But right now, the focus was being held.

This is discipline, clarity, and more than anything, strategy. This leads us to the next major point.

Michael Porter’s conception of strategy is that it represents the essential choices – the big bets — the organization places in order to succeed. What will happen that operationalizes the best hope the organization has of succeeding? The crucial, vital, unambiguous part of his definition is that this careful choosing is done against the constraint of limited resources. Since the organization can’t do everything, hard choices must be made.

Effective strategists don’t try to be all things to all people all the time. They don’t diffuse and confuse the strategy with efforts that are not aligned. They truly decide what’s a priority and – here’s a new word for you – a “posteriority.” A posteriority is what comes after.

Ever notice how often you hear the word priority, but never posteriority?

But posteriorities are the key to strategy. They represent what the organization is going to say “no” to, at least in the current time period, so that the organization can really embrace what matters.

The next point is about what is called the productivity frontier. The productivity frontier is the maximum output available given the (limited) resource inputs. It is a curve that slopes up and to the right. More resources equal more outputs, but in a non-linear way.

You might be able to violate the productivity frontier in the short run, but it will come back to bite you in the medium and long term, as we shall see. (Another nonsensical expression is working “110%.” If on the perfect day you can only do that amount of work, then that is capacity. That’s all you can do, and that’s 100%.)

The point about all these people trying to do 110% is that they are burning out, and from a sustainability perspective, it is not pretty. Employees virtually everywhere are fried, tired, toast, spent and running on empty. This is not just classroom and dinner party anecdotal evidence. Look at what has happened to the tightened labor force in corporate America, hours worked and productivity levels. In much of the federal government, workloads spiked after the delayering of management in the 1990s, and after 9/11. The squeeze is on.

Further, there are real questions about quality emerging – in products and services, customer service, and everywhere else. Many employees are desperately trying just to respond to everything on their plate, and anything that complicates the transaction becomes a big problem. Minimalist compliance, token efforts and hit-and-runs become commonplace.

If organizations can’t compete without overworking employees, they have a strategy problem.

One problem that prevents an awareness of this is the unidirectional nature of feedback. While managers are trained to give feedback downward, rarely does feedback float up. Organizational, engagement and climate surveys are slowly bringing the problems described above to the fore, but the research is incontrovertible that the higher up in an organization one goes, the less feedback he or she receives, and the less accurate it is.

I hear employees very often talk about the goals that have been set for them, oblivious to the impact those goals will have on them. For example, after another round of layoffs, the existing, remaining staff is simply expected to shoulder the additional workload. It culminates in a story I heard recently. A woman was lamenting a project she had just been handed that required her team – right after her team was reassigned to another area. A crisis had happened elsewhere, but her manager did not want to hear that the project she had been handed couldn’t be done without the vanishing project team. (“Make it happen, Just do it, or “Make the pain go away,” are other crude expressions of non-strategic demands.

Effective leaders don’t make the mistake of trying to do everything. They forge strategy. Telling employees they should do everything makes no sense.

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