You’ve Got Priorities All Wrong!

By Mark Samuel –

The word “priority” can often be a point of confusion for leaders and employees at all levels within an organization. Some of the common comments I hear include “We have too many priorities,” “We make everything a priority,” “We decide on a few priorities, but don’t stick to them” and “We always have more priorities than we can handle at any given time.”

So, let’s clear up the confusion once and for all.

There are three types of priorities that cause this confusion and overwhelm: routine priorities, continuous improvement priorities and what I call “B STATE” or breakthrough priorities.

Routine Priorities

Routine priorities are usually not thought of as priorities because they are derived from your basic job description. But the truth is, they are the highest priority! Why? Because those responsibilities must get done daily for the business to run and for customers to be served. In other words, they’re nonnegotiable and are required in order to keep your organization in business. There are thousands of routine priorities that need to be accomplished every day. The closer you are to the front lines, the more routine priorities you have.

Because routine priorities directly impact the customer, if there are breakdowns preventing those routine responsibilities from being accomplished, you have to fix those first. It’s like having a home beautification project for your house. If a water line breaks in the house, you’d better drop the beautification project and put all your attention on fixing the water leak.

While it’s great to develop improvement-oriented projects, you have to keep in mind the stress of resources and time they might put on your routine priorities. It’s imperative to make sure those improvement projects don’t jeopardize and come at the expense of routine effectiveness.

Continuous-Improvement Priorities

When routine functioning has breakdowns or opportunities for improved effectiveness or efficiency of delivery, we use continuous improvement projects. Continuous-improvement priorities are those projects critical for improving, streamlining or fixing broken routine functioning. There are typically hundreds of continuous improvement projects going on at any one time, both functionally and cross-functionally.

The challenge in managing continuous-improvement priorities is that these projects are often lacking coordination across the organization in terms of human resources, financial resources or timing of implementation. With hundreds of uncoordinated continuous-improvement priorities happening at once, this can cause major cross-functional breakdown, lack of teamwork and support and confusion about what’s really important to the organization. Usually, this stems from silo thinking and behavior, where conflicting messages causes frustration and misunderstanding.

Continuous-improvement priorities are imperative; if you’re not improving what you do daily, you won’t survive very long as a business. Either your staff will burn out, or you won’t be able to keep up with the competition. So continuous-improvement priorities are important and are a huge support to streamlining or minimizing routine responsibilities, which are more prone to crisis.

B STATE Priorities

B STATE priorities are entirely different than routine and continuous improvement priorities. They are what I call your breakthrough priorities — they transform your business from its current state (A State) to a breakthrough state (B STATE). While continuous improvement priorities take you from an A to an A plus state of betterment, B STATE priorities are transformative — game-changers for your business and culture.

B STATE priorities represent those projects that will pivot your business and culture at the same time to address external drivers such as competition, new markets, changing customer demands, new regulatory standards or a turbulent economy.

While your company might have hundreds or even thousands of routine and continuous-improvement priorities, most organizations can only handle about six to eight B STATE priorities at any given time. They are the most important critical few, which is why they become nonnegotiable for your business to thrive in the future.

B STATE priorities are the most cross-functional and cross-organizational based on the level of impact they have on your business. They require the highest level of critical thinking; thus, there is a shared ownership for removing obstacles that could prevent success at the executive level. While a functional area may lead a B STATE priority project, the ownership is with all executives for its success. Generally, B STATE priority projects include all levels of the organization and need to be coordinated with all functional areas for effective implementation.

Summary

In an organizational environment in which “priority” can mean almost anything at all, causing confusion and overwhelm, it’s important to understand the types of priorities your organization engages with and implements. It’s also important for all employees to understand which of the continuous-improvement and B STATE priorities they will be supporting and when. This provides people with a clear sense of purpose, direction and value to the overall growth and betterment of your organization.

While your organization is always functioning (routine) and gradually improving (continuous), B STATE priorities take your organization to a whole new level in which collective execution, team relationships and business results improve drastically in a short period of time.

This blog post was first published as a Forbes Coaches Council Post.

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