How to maintain Focus on your Priorities

Rubber stamp of Priority
Man pointing to image to the right

" The key is not to prioritize what's on your schedule,
but to schedule your priorities."

... Stephen Covey

Focus on priorities and achieve your desired results

We all have been through some form of strategic planning and identified the keys to our success going forward. Associated with that we develop a (hopefully short) list of priorities that we agree must be acted on for us to achieve our desired results.

Fighting fires instead of dealing with priorities?

AlligatorAnd then the day-to-day business pressures take over and, 3 months later, we realize we have not maintained the focus on the identified priorities but have instead drifted back into fire-fighting mode, reminiscent of the old saying "When you're up to your armpits in alligators, it is hard to remember you are there to drain the swamp.".  You end up chasing down things that are what Steven Covey would call urgent, but which may not be all that important.

Urgency vs Important MatrixConfusing urgent with important?

Oh, and by the way, in a classic case of marketing overriding reality, it was NOT Stephen Covey who invented the urgent/important matrix, it was Dwight Eisenhower, when he was a General in the US Army, prior to becoming President of the USA who developed the decision matrix to help him decide what needed his attention: . In a departure from consultant tradition, although yes, we MUST (and usually do), pay attention right now to items in the upper right quadrant, the real challenge is to keep items in the upper left quadrant on the front-burner and prevent them from being overtaken by items in the bottom right quadrant (an easy trap to fall into) or, heaven forbid, items in the bottom left quadrant (a true management sin if there ever was one).

You are not alone

Fear not, you are not alone in this challenge. The number of articles on this topic are ample proof that it is a pervasive issue. Take a look at:

So, what do we, as leaders, do to maintain focus on the priorities, not just for ourselves but also for the whole team?

Communication is crucial

Graphic of network of peopleObviously communication of the priorities, including the reasons why, is very important. Not just once, after the planning is completed, but ongoing, in multiple ways, to make sure everyone hears a consistent message.

Make sure everyone knows what you want them to do

A review of the job description for employees can help identify gaps between what you want and what you are asking for. When was the last time you looked at or updated the job descriptions for your team - assuming you did create them at some point? If your employees are dealing with outdated job descriptions, it is hard to imagine how they can possibly know what they are expected to do. Of course, it is not just the individual job descriptions that are being reviewed; it is the alignment of roles and responsibilities both inter and intra departmentally that count.

Who do they count on / who counts on them ?

Graphic of People FlowchartSome kind of a flow analysis is helpful: not only understanding what each person does but also documenting who, inside and outside your company, provides information and/or other resources on which they depend to do their job. Equally important, who, inside or outside your company depends on them to provide information and/or other resources to get a job done. So you now have aligned - on paper - what everyone is supposed to be doing to keep the company progressing on the key priorities.

Keeping the activities on the priorities

What do you do to ensure they - and you - maintain focus on the priorities? Graphic of people in groupThere are many lean methodologies that are used in production environments that can be adapted here.  Daily huddles can be used to:

  • review progress against goals
  • identify issues preventing progress
  • allocate resources to areas needing help

and can certainly can be useful in many functional areas beyond the shop floor. These meetings must be managed to ensure they do not turn into time-wasting, energy absorbing, counter-productive sessions. You've never attended meetings like that have you? These daily meetings need not be in person. With today's technology and distributed workforces, there are tools to allow this kind of review to be done online. Just make sure that any online method has individual attention paid to staff who are not delivering against commitments.

Meetings must be managed

ChecklistTo manage the meetings, be they quick, stand-up huddle-type meetings or more detailed sessions, always make sure, in the meeting invitation, to identify:

  • the purpose of the meeting (reason for meeting, expected outcome)
  • who is invited and for what reason
  • how long the meeting will be
  • what the agenda will look like, including time allocated for each item
  • who will be responsible for making decisions

There will undoubtedly be issues raised during the meeting that you have neither the time nor desire to deal with at the meeting. Create a "parking lot" for these items - a written list that everyone can see of items to be dealt with outside the meeting - and make sure at the end of the meeting to review the list and either agree to not go further with an issue or assign responsibilities and time lines to deal with each issue.

It's about outcomes, not process

The focus in all the above needs to be on outcomes and results, not process. It does not matter if everyone is working hard and doing great work if the needed results are not being achieved because people are doing a great job but doing the wrong thing. Scales with moneyThere is an old saying by Peter Drucker (paraphrased) that if you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it. The original quote was from W. Edwards Deming, who, although he was a great believer in collecting data whenever possible and making decisions based on data, not hunches, the actual quote was "It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it – a costly myth.". What Dr. Deming was saying was that whenever you can, measure and manage accordingly, but recognize that many things that cannot be measured must still must be managed. so measure and manage with data whenever possible but accept that you will need to manage some things without standard measures. Another perspective on this is from Taiichi Ohno (considered to be the father of the Toyota Production System) who was quoted saying “Data are of course important in manufacturing, but I place the greatest emphasis on facts.". So if someone creates a priority like "Our senior leaders must mentor our staff to ensure the transition of knowledge and sustainability/growth of our business.", translate that into some specific metrics - based on observable results - that you can then monitor and manage accordingly. Clarity and specificity is key here. Grandiose objectives and metrics do not help. Break each expectation into specific and clear metrics and use those. And since many results are about customers, you may want to think about how to collect and utilize customer feedback in your business. So what if you have done all this and you are still not achieving the prioritized results you need for your business?

Why are they not doing what I want?

There are three reasons why individuals do not do what they have been asked to do:

  1. they cannot do it - they do not have the skills or ability
  2. they don't want to do it - they don't have the motivation
  3. they are prevented from doing it - they are not being provided with the tools or resources to do it

Figure out which one (or more) of the above is blocking progress in your company and act accordingly. This is where you must apply the "No Should" rule. It is not acceptable for someone to say "He should be able to do that ...". That is a nice way of saying "It is not my fault, it's his!". At a company I was once with, one of our leaders had the button shown on the left made for us to wear. We wore them for a month and it is amazing how often we caught ourselves wanting to say should. When we were not allowed to say "should", we had to start asking ourselves what was really happening, and put aside our personal biases in favour of facts. It was hard, but it was valuable.

Does the motivation exist?

Inspirational words on stones

If the issue is motivation, this points to a lack of what is often called "buy-in", which is one of the worst phrases to ever enter the business lexicon. Our job is not to brainwash our staff to "buy-in" to our ideas. We need to understand and communicate a sense of urgency for the need for any change to the business. Thereafter, our job is to engage the staff and have them help us understand what is and is not working in our business and what outside our business is helping or hindering us (now and in the future). From that collaboration, we can work together to create action plans that will actually get us where we want to end up. Will there be some who do not want to take this journey with us? Yes, but likely not very many and those that are not ready to adapt need to find a business where they can be part of its success. You need to help them do that.

Are resources and skills in place?

If the issue is resources or tools, you have the ability to determine the optimal solution to that. If the issue is skills or ability, there are options available to you including reassignment, training, mentoring, coaching and termination.

Use strengths instead of just filling gaps

One useful tool is called Strengths Finder. It is a flip of the normal management practice of finding the gap in skills/ability and working to close the gap. This is valuable to a point, particularly if you have a core skill requirement that is missing, but in addition to that, the idea behind Strengths Finder is to find out what the person is really good at and find ways to have them do things for your company that take advantage of their strengths.

The formula for predicting the success of a change initiative

Clock showing time to changeIf you like formulaic reasoning, you will be interested in which describes the work by David Gleicher in the 1960s, referenced by Richard Beckhard and Reuben Harris in 1977, and adapted by Kathie Dannemiller and Robert Jacobs in the 1980s which provided a formula for pre-determining if a desired change had a chance to be successful: If                       D * V * F  <  R change cannot succeed. If D * V * R > R, change can succeed (as long as many other things are done correctly). To use this formula:

  • Determine R = on a scale of 0-1000, how strong the Resistance is to change
  • Determine D = on a scale of 0-10, how much Dissatisfaction there is with the current state of whatever is the focus of change
  • Determine V = on a scale of 0-10, how clear and shared is the Vision of a preferred future
  • Determine F = on a scale of 0-10, how clear and acceptable are the First steps of a roadmap to achieving the vision

If any one element of D, V or F is missing (ie is 0), change cannot succeed. All elements must be present in sufficient force to overcome the resistance expected. So, there you are. Whether you like formulas or general guidelines, use the above to keep you and your team focussed on the priorities established for your business to succeed.

" I have two kinds of problems,
the urgent and the important.
The urgent are [usually] not important,
and the important are [almost] never urgent."

... Dwight Eisenhower, President of the USA
quoting a "former college President"
of Northwestern University

Posted in General Leadership, Strategy Development, Team Alignment.

One Comment

  1. Thanks, Richard – great summary of all the issues involved in getting priorities into our calendars and task lists!

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