Is it worth it to ruthlessly prioritize?

“If it’s a priority, you’ll find a way. If it isn’t, you’ll find an excuse.” In this episode, I analyze whether or not “ruthless prioritization” should be something you aim to achieve. Depending on your situation and approach, a leader can achieve great results…but at what cost?

According to Sheryl Sandberg, ruthless priorities mean “only doing the very best of the ideas. Lots of times you have very good ideas. But they’re not as good as the most important thing you could be doing.” Another definition would be “Ruthless Prioritization is the elimination of what doesn’t drive you towards your goals. There is always too much to do, and not enough time & time cannot be created. So your limited time must be intentionally invested. Being clear on your goals clarifies where to invest time.” If I were to take a literal interpretation of the phrase, I would say that one will only spend time on defined priorities and deliberately choose to ignore everything else. The key word in that phrase is “one,” as in an individual. Individual prioritization could be achievable since you are not dependent on any external factor or partner, but most of us don’t work in those types of environments. We work in teams, or more often teams of teams. I believe ruthless prioritization as an individual within a team can do more damage than making progress. That type of selfish prioritization could lead to deep rifts within an organization because the second-order effect of your action may be ignored: you still have to work as a team. In order for a team to meet the intent of the phrase “ruthlessly prioritize” and actually maintain overall team integrity, the following elements must be present:

The entire team must have a clear understanding of the priorities

Priorities should be clearly defined by leadership, with minimal room for interpretation. Ideally, the list of priorities is captured in a standardized document with version control and is readily available in a centralized location for everyone, both internal and external to the organization, can access and reference it. Priorities shouldn’t be a secret! They should be commonly known and frequently spoken about, both by newcomers and veterans of the team. By having clearly defined priorities, individuals and teams can work independently towards the same goals. This requires trust, a foundational element of a high-performing team. We must trust that we are working towards the same priorities in our individual foxholes so we aren’t surprised when the team musters together. 

Knowing how to prioritize between and within projects

From the perspective of within, one must understand the sequential order of critical tasks and be able to communicate those tasks to others so they can stay on task accordingly. It can be easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer number of tasks needed to be accomplished, but focusing on the near-term and necessary can assist in prioritization. Having an understanding of the order, combined with the ability to be able to adjust that order based on objective data, will add even more firepower to prioritization. A leader must be able to discern between value-added and value-wasted information. “Added” means the information add or properly shifts the direction in the right path, while “Wasted” is just that: energy that is wasted because the reason why it is introduced has personal instead of professional intent. Ego-based action versus true self. Someone who may be trying to win a conversation versus working towards a solution. Develop your self-awareness to ensure you are not a contributor to value-wasted information, as this will only distract you from the priorities you should be progressing towards.

From the perspective of between, one must understand the timing and tempo of leadership engagement to drive purposeful action towards priorities. As the classic management quote from Peter Drucker goes, “What gets measured gets managed.” In this case, the measure happens when deliberate dates and times are specified for updates and actions to occur. This could be a specific date for a project to be completed or a recurring update that ensures progress is made toward a long-term goal. Both of these types of engagements must be carved out in the team’s work schedule to show proper alignment toward priorities. By consistently measuring and tracking progress, priorities remain at the forefront for all teammates to work towards. Battle rhythms, or a deliberate schedule of planned events and agenda items based on defined priorities, are a stalwart of a high-performing team. If there is no time for priorities to be worked on, discussed, and actions to be taken, is it even a priority? I would argue it’s not. Keep the prioritized projects and tasks for action in front of you so that your actions match your words, and use a team calendar to help you and your team stay accountable.

Having the courage (and/or top cover from leadership) to say No,
or at least not yet

When used correctly, individuals and teams can use defined priorities to NOT work on other projects/tasks. If there is no alignment to a priority, energy shouldn’t be expended. If you keenly understand the priorities, you can easily say no. You could even point out the list of priorities to further support your stance. In addition, priorities should have strategic alignment with higher headquarters priorities. This alignment will add weight to choices made at all levels and initiatives can obtain very quick momentum. Be cautious to not assume you have it 100% right, but instead use the momentum to move past nervousness and hand-wringing to gain progress faster. An alternative to saying no could be not yet. Again, don’t forget that we work within teams. By saying not yet, you at least acknowledge what is being asked of you and not making a final, ruthless decision. Perhaps you share in the interest and want to dedicate energy and time towards the non-prioritized task, but it must take its proper place in line. Once progress has been made toward the priorities, you can smoothly switch gears and start working on the priorities you have already put on deck. Keep on repeating this process, and you can make true progress as a team, not in spite of it.