Prioritize or Perish

“It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” Henry David Thoreau

The late Steve Jobs would gather with his top 100 people to prioritize. They would hammer out top 10 priorities, and he would cut down to three, and declare that no Apple money or resources would be spent on the other seven.

Warren Buffett advises people to write down their 25 career goals and identify the top five options. The remaining 20 should fall into a “Avoid-At-All-Costs” list – they should get no attention until the top five are achieved.

I regularly work with organizations who have hundreds of programs going on. When I ask the leaders and managers “which of these is the most important,” almost to a person they can indicate the top 3 – 5 programs. I then ask “then why are you allocating time and money to the others?” Common answers include:

  • Departments X, Y or Z have to get something this year
  • A lot of these are projects that didn’t get done last year, that we have to finish
  • It’s in our strategic plan

When everything is a priority, and there is no focus on the true priorities, there is negative impact.

Fractional resources: Assigning percentages of people’s time wastes time. First, the process of allocating % of people is non-value added. There is a lot of administrative time wasted on splitting up our most valuable resource: employees. Second, humans spend time context switching; moving from thinking about one program task to another. In addition to all the grit in the gears this causes, employee engagement suffers – people want to complete something that delights the customer & celebrate the results – the less this happens, the more engagement suffers.

Slow-to-value: If Program A is the company’s top priority, then presumably the C-suite and Board want it done as fast as possible. Assigning available and competent resources to anything other than Program A will delay it. Imagine if Amazon had tried to sell books *and* all the other products and services online initially. They got excellent at selling books, then they iterated at getting excellent at a lot of other things.

Non-renewable resource: Time. You can make or borrow money, but you can’t make or borrow more time. And in the 21st century, the organizations that delight customers fastest and most consistently have the best chance at success.

Yesterday’s priorities: We live in a world of hyper-acceleration. In the 20th century, we could take years to bring product to market. Now, our mobile phone apps are being updated in days or weeks at the most. The expectation of consumers is to delivery new functions with frequency. Ergo, yesterday’s program is…. for yesterday. Today the priorities will have moved. Ergo (again), get the top priorities done faster.

#TrueLeadership should take a good hard look at whether they have truly prioritized.

“Action expresses priorities” Mahatma Gandhi



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