Setting and keeping priorities is hard these days. You might have things set one day and the next day things change. Everything seems a little more chaotic than it used to be.
Maybe that’s because the world is changing at a faster pace. Businesses are facing new dynamics. People are more easily distracted.
When everyone seems to be overwhelmed, it’s can be hard to find your footing. And it can be difficult to work a consistent path forward.
Not to mention, of course, the fundamental issue that you have too many priorities and not enough resources.
All of this makes it hard to decide where to focus your time and energy.
I hate to have things fall through the cracks. But if I chase down every immediate issue, I will never get to the longer term things that are important–many of which will help avoid future emergencies.
While the fact that this is a common struggle helps somewhat, I still take it personally. I don’t want to rely on excuses. When things get tough, I want to be someone who overcomes the chaos, helps bring order, and gets things done.
Maybe you want to do that too.
Because when you look at great leaders, they always seem to find a way. They find a through-line by focusing on certain things and ignoring others. They manage relationships well along the way. And they somehow find a way to the finish line for the things that matter most.
I think that it comes down to balance. There needs to be a way to systematically focus attention on both short- and long-term things that are important.
Eisenhower’s urgent/important matrix is a helpful guide. But I find it a little difficult to follow on an ongoing basis.
I find it more helpful to think of priority channels.
Priority channels are more realistic
Keeping lists is a great thing, but it’s also problematic. Things just aren’t that clear-cut and force-ranked. Work is messier than that.
It might be more helpful to categorize the things on those lists. And to think of them all as flowing down certain channels over time.
Because that’s a better representation of how things work, and how you can work things more effectively.
Like a river, priorities flow along over time. They don’t flow at the same pace, as each channel has its own current. You shift your attention by cycling through these channels according to how things are flowing, and how you are pushing and pulling them along.
Like the old Frogger video game, you keep working your way back and forth from river bank to river bank.
Now, let’s talk about how we got these 4 channels.
The priority mix
You can determine priorities by looking at what makes one priority more worthy than the others. The ultimate mix is one that has visibility, impact, and timing.
If your project has all 3, it’s flowing down the Big Bang channel. This is a priority that is visible, will have a real impact, and for which the timing is right.
This is the kind of project we naturally think of as a high priority. It occupies the kind of mind space that organizational high priorities do. People are aware of it at multiple levels, it is funded and approved, and there is a clear deadline or goal post.
You always need to be on your game for these and to dedicate most of your attention to things like this. It’s core to your role.
But that doesn’t mean that the rest of the world stops spinning. Let’s look at the other possible combinations.
Shovel ready priorities
If your initiative has visibility and impact, but the timing isn’t right, then that’s the kind of project that you need to get Shovel Ready.
These are the kinds of projects that are next up in the queue for the Big Bang category. But if you leave them to wither, you will be up against it when the timing comes around.
Instead of setting these priorities aside entirely, you need to get ready for them to hit. Reviewing contract details, brushing up on the technical details, socializing the concepts with stakeholders, and organizing a detailed plan of attack are all things that are important for this project’s success.
Now is the time to spend some cycles getting prepared for a successful launch and implementation. This work doesn’t need to take up huge chunks of your time, but you do need to weave it in somewhat consistently to make progress.
Working to get priorities Shovel Ready helps you to be prepared when the timing hits for these priorities. It can also help give you that unconscious processing time for your Big Bang projects. As you cycle through the nuances of an unrelated project, you might get useful insights for the one on the front burner now. Stepping away and doing something different but related can lead to some a-ha moments.
If your priority is something visible and the timing is right (or you have freedom to control the timing), but it doesn’t have a huge impact, this might be a good Quick Win.
A steady stream of Quick Wins helps you in many ways. Progress can be slow on bigger and longer term initiatives. Quick Wins help generate some momentum for you and your teams.
Anytime something crosses the finish line, you and your teams will have a sense of accomplishment. It’s ongoing proof that you can deliver.
Also, even though some Quick Wins may be small in impact, their impact will accumulate over time. And in many cases, it’s the small things that count.
Speaking of which, delivering these things helps to build a reputation of accomplishment. And that can strengthen influence for projects of all sizes.
While all that visibility is nice for lots of reasons, sometimes there are priorities that have impact and timing without being super visible.
Some of these Foundational priorities will make a meaningful difference, particularly in the future. And you may have control or influence over the timing. Maybe these are things that you have some budget for, or they may be things that are foundational to the way you or your team operate. They might be forms or processes or clean up work or other items.
These are things that, if done well, can set you up for greater success in the future.
Perhaps they will give you some efficiency. Maybe they will save money. Or it could be that they help to position you better in some way.
Whatever the case, paying continual attention to Foundational matters is probably one of the most important things you can do as a leader. Even if you are just leading yourself.
Because you should always be building a better mousetrap. Operating the same trap in the same way over and over again isn’t ever going to lead to real change and improvement.
Cycling through priorities
Thinking about your priorities flowing down these various channels can be helpful, if only to recognize that you have a mix of things to work on in order to be successful.
You can also start to develop strategies for working across all of these channels. Perhaps you will see an opportunity to deliver Quick Wins with some sort of cadence. You might make it a goal to deliver something along these lines every month or two. Depending on your situation and the nature of your work, this could be more or less frequent.
You might be able to delegate some Foundational items as priorities to your team. Or, you may be able to dedicate some cycles to these things yourself. Perhaps you will carve out a regular time slot each week, like Friday afternoons when people don’t want to meet and there isn’t a lot of momentum in your organization. That could be your time to delve into something Foundational and finish out your week strong.
In the Shovel Ready category, you might use your commute time or waiting in line for a sandwich time to contemplate what needs to be done and how you might approach certain tasks. Maybe you will invite a colleague to lunch or coffee for a discussion along these lines. Some of that commute time could be used to read through a contract or research an issue (assuming you’re on a train and not driving!).
Knowing that you have all these channels to tend to, you might focus even more energy on your Big Bang priorities. They are so prominent that you might organize your day around them, dedicating your mornings to these priorities each day.
These are just sample ideas, but you get the point. If you are consciously approaching all 4 categories, you can setup your own strategies for cycling through them. As you ramp up, you will find that certain things fall by the wayside. That’s ok. All that means is you are finding some of the fluff by process of elimination. Much of it is probably busy work or something that doesn’t have the visibility, impact, or timing to matter much in the end, if at all.
As you organize your approach, adjust your schedule, and work through your different priorities, you will gain more and more control over your work. This can help you to shift from more of a reactive mode to more of a proactive mode.
It’s sort of like making a budget. Rather than tracking your expenses by analyzing your credit card bill at the end of the month, you are setting out at the beginning of the month with a strategic plan for spending. Only in this case, it’s your time and energy at work.
This shift empowers you in lots of ways, including how you communicate with your boss, your team, and various stakeholders. You will be able to articulate progress and plans well across a variety of responsibilities that you have. And your future promises and predictions are much more likely to be on target. Which helps your credibility immensely.
When you engage someone about work, you can sense if they are scrambling or if they have things well in hand. They are doing the same when the speak with you. Now, imagine how well you will come off as you have your priorities organized in the way we’ve been talking about in this post.
Prioritizing well is a critical leadership skill. You know that all too well if you’ve ever worked for a boss or organization that doesn’t do it well.
But prioritizing is hard. Nobody has enough time or resources. There are too many things on your list.
Which is why channels may help you manage priorities better than lists. Each of the priorities that needs attention falls into one of 4 categories.
Big Bang projects are the most visible and impactful projects with the timing aligned to make them happen now.
Shovel Ready projects will also have a lot of visibility and impact, but their timing isn’t quite right yet. Those are the things to prepare well so that you can hit the ground running when the timing is right.
Quick Wins are those projects that have visibility and for which you can control the timing. Even though their impact may not be huge, a steady cadence of delivery can build your momentum and reputation.
Foundational priorities are those things that will pay off in the long run. You can control the timing and the impact will be real, even if the visibility is relatively low. These are the kinds of things that enable you and your team to reach the next level, so they are not to be ignored.
Cycling through all of these channels as they flow, and controlling their flow, will help you to orchestrate your priorities for maximum effect over time.
Leadership isn’t clear-cut, but you can set a strategic path forward in this way. You can use this model to shift to a more proactive stance and reach higher levels of success.