“The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities”
Leadership theories often espouse the significance of developing, communicating, and making decisions based on priorities. However in many organizations, whether they are businesses, the military, or families, priorities are seldom discussed, identified, or communicated. Sometimes, even if they are, they are not used as the basis for decisions or revisited periodically to ensure their continued relevance and validity.
Most of the time when priorities are developed, they are described as a list of the most significant to least significant priorities that is intended to guide an organization as it wrestles with the challenges of limited manpower, resources, time, and energy. This naturally leads to an “or” proposition as an organization feels compelled to make a decision between competing interests by choosing between one or another priority.
This type of thinking may be suitable in certain situations but the complexity of life sometimes calls for an “and” proposition where a leader must guide their organization while meeting multiple competing and even opposing priorities. For example in combat, mission accomplishment and force protection are often the top two, yet conflicting priorities, and the leader cannot pick one or the other.
A different approach when dealing with certain complex situations is to use an “and” proposition between the top priorities instead of using an “or” proposition. When we reflect on our experiences we may find that we sometimes intuitively already do this. That is, even if not deliberate, this is what emerges during execution.
This requires a leader to find a balance between the top priorities, requiring a nuanced understanding of the environment and the problem they are attempting to resolve. This balance must take into account relationships and the tradeoffs between competing priorities in terms of resources, manpower, and risk. Revisiting the combat example discussed above, another way to think about and communicate priorities may be to state your priority as, “to constantly balance mission accomplishment with force protection.” Undoubtedly, this balance will induce risk to both priorities that must be understood and mitigated to the maximum extent possible.
This may not only be a more realistic representation of how we think and operate, it is much more easily communicated to subordinates who may become frustrated, even cynical, when they hear a laundry list of priorities communicated by their leadership while experiencing firsthand the tradeoffs between competing priorities and the associated risks.
If a leader chooses to prioritize using this different approach, selecting the “alpha” priority is essential. The alpha priority is the priority that when the acceptable risk threshold is exceeded, (which depends on the context) it takes precedence over all other priorities. If this occurs, the leader must make a transition to an “or” proposition and do what it takes to achieve that alpha priority.
The main takeaway is that there are different ways to approach prioritization based on the context of the situation. The key is to identify the right approach, develop priorities, revisit them often, and communicate them often so everyone in your organization can execute in accordance with the leader’s intent.