Managers everywhere are abusing their employees by using priorities to convey to-do lists. It is not because of anything insidious in their objectives, but the average manager (both low- and high-level, by the way) simply doesn’t think enough about priorities to really do anything meaningful with them.
For teams I lead, our entire existence revolves around priorities. With priorities as the cornerstone of my management mechanics, I have created this Priorities Bill of Rights:
- Group priorities and budget/strategic planning are different. At a surprising number of companies, prioritization is an annual occurrence. You spend two months putting together a plan that is invalidated by the time the plan is socialized with upper management. These plans are a great way to manage budget asks and insert strategic projects, but they are a lousy way to manage a team. The types of priorities that show up during this planning are very coarse, too broad to be generally applicable for individuals looking for clarity on what they should work on. Do not fall into the trap of thinking these planning activities generate practical priorities. Think of them more as broad-brush directions.
- Priorities need to reviewed weekly. Because we tend to rely on these Big Bang prioritization events, too many teams don’t review their priorities with enough frequency. You need to be reviewing priorities with your teams every week. For teams I lead, I have a Monday morning meeting every week where we review the group’s priorities. It is the perfect opportunity to remove any ambiguity, and the repetitiveness leaves my team with no doubts whatsoever about what is most important for our team to accomplish.
- If your team has more than 2-3 priorities in a given week, then you have no priorities. The goal of the priority meeting is not to list all the projects that are in flight. The priority meeting is meant to highlight the 2-3 things that must be accomplished that week. If you find yourself listing more than 2-3 things, you are abusing the priority meeting. The objective here is not to talk through everyone’s projects; this is not a status meeting. So don’t try to list the 2-3 priorities for every individual. Highlight the top 2-3 things the team needs to rally around, and leave the rest for more individualized conversations.
- If your priorities are changing every week, you are likely doing something wrong. There will be urgent things that pop up and consume a few of your priority slots, but if your priorities change every week, you are likely not prioritizing appropriately. Think about how you want your Year in Review meeting to go. Come next January, you will hope that you have made progress on your big ticket items. How can you do that if they never make the weekly priority list?
- Priorities have to be specific to be meaningful. So you are convinced that your top strategic efforts have to make the priority list, but you need to make sure that you have concrete objectives to be achieved. Without specificity, work will remain nebulous and undelivered. And at the end of the year, it will be of little solace to your boss that people spent a lot of time on something – she wants results!
- If your weekly priorities are always urgent, your team will rebel. Deadlines are great. They act as a good motivator for us to get work done. But if your team is under constant deadline pressure, they never get a break. Even knowledge workers need to recharge their batteries. And I am not talking about PTO. We cannot sustain a sprint for 4-6 months at a time. The business ebbs and flows, and our workloads must do the same. Failure to renew ourselves leads to long-term burnout and poor results.
- Subordinate things to the most important priorities. If something is the highest priority, it means you should be doing it instead of other things. It is fine to say no to things. Almost every first-time manager (and probably three quarters of all managers) never say no to anything. Need something by end of week? No problem! But what you have just done is implicitly traded something else off. Was that the right call? And more importantly, how do you know it was the right call? If you answer that you intuitively know, you are a lazy leader. Real leaders ask questions and explicitly talk about this stuff.
- Highlight the outliers. Every week, I highlight the outlier tasks (those tasks that are not on my big priority list but are consuming time). By highlighting these explicitly, I keep track of whether they are quietly subverting my plans. These nefarious outliers can degrade team performance by providing near-constant distractions from the top priorities. Call them out. Have your team call them out during meetings. And then explicitly tell people to stop doing them.
- Ambiguity is the enemy of progress. When you talk about priorities, make sure you are crystal clear about the objective. What outcome are you trying to achieve? Is the objective to complete that project plan? Or is the real objective to make sure the plan is socialized and signed off? Do you and your team have the same view of success for this particular project? Is it measurable? If success is not clear, chances are you are being loose. And loose management leads to poor performance.
- You need to have your team’s back. If you set the priority and then an asynchronous request comes in and you blindly pas it to your team, you are subverting your own priorities. Some requests must be handled, but you would be surprised what you can say no to. Grow a spine and protect your team’s focus, because it is the most important thing you have. Constant distractions not only impact productivity but they erode the confidence in management’s ability to stay the course.
My weekly priority meetings last 10-15 minutes. Even when I was managing large teams, these meetings were fast and focused. Here are the top objectives for the week. No fluff. Here are the new objectives (if there are any) and context around them. And I don’t spend any time on anything not in the top 3. If your people don’t feel like they are valuable because their projects are not listed, you have a bigger engagement problem than you imagine. Take care of that during the rest of the week. I conclude every one of these meetings with two questions: is there anything I left off that should be here? And is there any ambiguity about our team’s priorities this week?
As a free final principle, let me just suggest that if you do this well, you can use these meetings to communicate upward. When upper management has a good view of priorities, they tend to back off. The number of one-off requests becomes smaller because they know you have your team under control. Visibility reduces scrutiny, which gives your team even more protection. And you end up looking like a freaky good manager because of it.