To get stuff done, of course. We have all been there. Your Boss storms into your office wanting to know what the status of that one project which you had forgotten about because you didn’t think it was important. You hem and haw as you search for the words that you hope will let you escape this encounter without getting chastised. How could he do this to you? After all, this project didn’t come up in your one-on-one yesterday. He hasn’t asked about it in months. What has changed?
In my experience, nothing has probably changed. This was probably a high priority project in the boss’s mind and he was expecting you to understand the priority by reading his mind using your ESP powers. Right? Obviously, I am being a little flip here, but doesn’t it work that way? As leaders, we expect our teammates to understand what we were thinking. As customers, we expect our vendors to know that we have three #1 priority items we need done immediately. (Don’t even get me going about Sales!) Rarely, do we tell others our priorities. One of the hardest conversations to have is communicating that someone’s favorite project is not as important as they think it should be. Or that task that we need done is the one task most people loathe.
We can’t avoid this type of conversation. We can do something new and innovative. Brace yourself here. I have a new concept. It is called “Setting Priorities”.
What is a priority? The Merriam Webster website defines priority as something that is more important than other things and that needs to be done or dealt with first. So how many priorities can you have? Most people would concede that you can have multiple priorities, but going back to the definition, isn’t there only one top priority?
As I have gained more experience, I have realized that leaders have to talk in specific terms about their priorities with the their teammates. If I can only do the most important thing, what is it? Most of the IT folks in the room should be thinking “Keeping production systems up”. So, in my world, that is always #1. But what is #2 or #3? A lot of people I have talked to argue that there can be lots of #1s. There very well might be given different perspectives, but in my relationship with my teammates, they have to know what my only #1 is.
What’s more, as a leader, I have the difficult conversations with my teammates about what their respective priorities frequently. If they get to a point where they have to make a choice to work on Project A or Project B, they work on Project A because it is the highest priority. As they focus on the top priority, a miracle happens: They get it done!
We often discuss priorities in our one-on-one meetings. We will chat about what they got done last week, what they are currently working on, and then what there impediments are. All, in the context of what their respective priorities are. How can your collaboration be any more direct? How can anyone say I don’t understand what you think is important?
So, how do you get started? In my current position, I have done the following:
- Started by talking about what I think the Solution Engineering group priorities (essentially mine) were. First in my leadership team meeting, and then in our monthly departmental meetings. The first time you do this at a department meeting, some people will be put off the work they are doing is not #1. Be prepared to explain your rationale that their work is important as well, but forced to make a decision priority work should get the focus.
- After putting our Solution Engineering priorities out there, I asked each of my teammates to write their top four activities in priority order on my white board. After they had them up on the board, we would discuss each activity and it’s relative importance to the other items on the board. As we progressed through the conversation, they would add, delete, modify, or reorder as necessary.
- Each week at our one-on-one, my teammates and I would use the priorities for the basis of our conversation. At first, it was uncomfortable as my teammates where used to working a little on a lot of projects, as opposed to focusing on the highest priority tasks. After about three weeks, the nature of the conversation changes. As they start getting stuff done, they start feeling good about the fact they got something done. What’s more it gives me a chance to give immediate feedback of “Nice job”. It also opens up an opportunity to talk about what went well, the impact it has, and what could have been done differently. Conclude by showing them the respect they deserve by saying “Thanks”.
- Continue to talk about priorities.
A lot of business people these days give lip service to being transparent. What most of those people mean is they really want everyone else to be transparent. This is one approach to put transparency front and center in view of your teammates.
Thanks for coming in today.