In theory, effective prioritisation should be simple. It involves business leaders setting and communicating clear strategic priorities for their organisation. To follow these priorities through, leaders must embed robust prioritisation methods to ensure that all (or most) activities are aligned to their strategy.
However, it doesn’t take much for businesses to veer off-track. If prioritisation criteria become loose, outdated or poorly communicated, off–strategy initiatives and activities can become commonplace and businesses rapidly become less focused and less productive. In today’s complex, fast-moving and highly competitive environment, businesses cannot afford for this fragmented approach to prevail.
Not only does poor prioritisation result in projects being inadequately planned or resourced, strategies not being executed and market opportunities being missed, but also employees can find themselves overworked and stressed. Individuals commonly complain that they are being ‘pulled in too many directions’ and feel as though ‘there are not enough hours in the day’.
Assessing and improving an organisation’s ability to prioritise can unlock untapped capacity, as well as enhance employee engagement, which can surge as staff become clearer on how the activities and projects they are delivering contribute to the ‘bigger picture’.
Poor prioritisation tends to be a symptom of organisational inefficiency
Poor prioritisation manifests itself differently in different organisations. It is often helpful to categorise the various ‘symptoms’ of poor prioritisation present within a business using a simple but focused ‘prioritisation framework’. Examples of such symptoms are: ‘over prioritisation’, which occurs when businesses label everything as ‘high priority’ and so nothing is ever stopped, or ‘devolved prioritisation’, which occurs when prioritisation is not carried out by senior management, leaving staff to prioritise themselves, which can result in poor alignment and personal agendas driving the focus of effort.
Once there is a better understanding of the symptoms the organisation is experiencing, it is easier to pinpoint specifically where prioritisation is falling down. This tends to be in one of three areas: either the process being used to prioritise is ineffective, poor prioritisation criteria are being chosen, or there is inadequate communication accompanying the process. Often it can be a combination of all three.
These three areas can be underpinned by potential ‘root causes’, which may be related to leadership, organisational structure and/or culture. In this way, tackling the problem of prioritisation provides us with a lens through which to examine the overall health of the organisation. It is through overcoming these deep-seated issues that long term, sustainable prioritisation can be created. These issues can be remedied through a number of targeted interventions, such as leadership development, team decision making, capability building, culture change, restructuring etc., depending on the nature of the underlying root cause.
The following case studies provide examples of how organisations can improve the way they prioritise in a sustainable way, and the benefits that can be achieved.
Case study 1: Consumer Goods – Supply Chain
Context: The business was in the process of integrating a recent acquisition. In particular, it was struggling to integrate the back office, as 100 projects were underway across the businesses with not enough resources available to achieve them all.
Diagnosis: The organisation had prioritisation processes in place; however, the criteria were not stringent enough considering the limited amount of funds, and all activities were defined as high priority, thus nothing was ever ‘stopped’. This resulted in ‘over prioritisation’.
Intervention: The leadership team worked to define criteria for evaluating and ranking initiatives. This included creating an inventory for all current initiatives and filtering out all that did not have accountability at a leadership level, a budget, clearly defined start and stop dates, and committed resource allocation. Next, initiatives were mapped against strategic objectives of the business. Remaining initiatives were then scored and ranked based on factors such as financial impact, complexity to implement etc.
Outcome: The business ended up with a prioritised list of initiatives and was able to mark a strict cut-off point above which they had the funds to implement, and below which they stopped and put onto a waiting list. As initiatives were executed, those ‘below the line’ were able to move up. To ensure sustainability, an investment management approach was set up so that all future projects were assessed consistently.
Case study 2: European Bank
Context: The bank was faced with a consolidating marketplace and a real threat of takeover/acquisition. They had recently launched a radical transformation programme to transform their processes, their approach to customers and their infrastructure; however, the bank’s CEO was grappling with how to balance resources for the transformation programme with business as usual.
Diagnosis: ‘Localised prioritisation’ was occurring, i.e. within the transformation programme but not across the whole business. This meant that resource allocation throughout the company was ineffective. There was also ‘misaligned prioritisation’ as the criteria used to prioritise within the transformation programme were not aligned with the broader business strategy.
Intervention: The management team agreed on the main business priorities, and then identified the implications for the transformation programme. All activities across the transformation programme and broader business were aligned and any gaps, duplications, clashes and interdependencies were identified.
Outcome: As a result of the intervention, the number of projects in the business was reduced by 30%. The money saved by this was invested into business in usual, and overall return went up by a third. A governance structure owned by the board was set up to track progress of the transformation programme and to monitor that it was achieving business priorities going forward.
Using a structured approach, management teams can exercise robust prioritisation to ensure strategy execution
Ensuring that leadership teams take a simple yet structured approach to prioritisation, whilst treating the root causes of the problems they are experiencing, is key to sustainable prioritisation. A one-off prioritisation exercise is of limited value as bad habits can creep back in quickly; it is always preferable to embed long term, sustainable prioritisation capability within organisations.
Successful business leaders tend to start by identifying and communicating key strategic priorities, and aligning internal activities against these on a regular basis. They find it useful to implement clear structure around when, what and how prioritisation will take place going forward.
Initially, some teams find it useful to have a number of their prioritisation sessions facilitated (through internal or external support) in order to avoid the team slipping back into old behaviours. Some teams also find simple tried-and-tested ‘scoring tools’ helpful to ensure that resource allocation decisions are viewed as objective, justified and non-personal.
Poor prioritisation is one of the most widespread problems in business today. With a simple yet focused approach, teams and individuals can significantly improve their understanding of and ability to prioritise, and cut out unnecessary complexity from their day to day workloads.
There is certainly a case that it is easier to achieve much more by doing less.
Talia Litman is a consultant at specialist leadership consultancy Tyler Mangan. Her primary focus is on supporting teams to build capabilities for effective objective setting, prioritisation, and strategy execution.