You make decisions each and every day about what is the most important priority for your team. At least I hope you do. But I’m starting to worry that many managers aren’t making these decisions. Instead, they’re waiting to make a decision until it’s clear which one single thing is the most important. They’re waiting until the decisions they need to make are simple. And they’re waiting for the right answer to come from above. Can we be frank here? I know your boss (or someone like your boss) and he has no clue what the right decision is either. If you took him your competing priorities scenario and laid out the facts, he would do exactly what you could do—make the best decision he knows how with the information available. So how about next time you do it instead?
Competing priorities are a daily problem. I saw exactly this kind of dilemma last week at a leader forum I was facilitating. A director-level leader expressed his exasperation at having a key person who was needed on critical project A and on critical project B. In front of his peers, the vice-presidents, and the entire executive team, he showed his frustration that he hadn’t been told which project was more important. For me, it was a public abdication of his role in making that decision.
It was the same theme in almost every conversation I had. “Just tell us the one thing that’s most important and then we can make decisions!!” What?!? [This is me cocking my head to the side like a confused Labrador Retriever.] If there was one single thing that was always most important, a trained monkey could make the call. We wouldn’t need you.
“For a while, it was Finance that ran the organization and it was all about lowering cost. Then sales ruled the roost and it was all about pushing out new product as fast as possible. When engineering was king, we lived and died by the quality of the product and nothing went out until it was ready. Now no one is running the show. I wish someone would just take over.”
Really?!? You think it’s possible to sum up a multi-million dollar business in just the “one thing?” Ok. I’ll leave it to you to tell the Board that we’re growing at 20% this year but the growth comes at the cost of a $30 million loss. Or that the profits are looking great for this year but the customers are abandoning us in droves because we shipped crap that wasn’t ready. How do you think that conversation is going to go? Not so well? Yeah, probably not.
So if the Board needs you to grow…profitably…and sustainably, then you tell me which one “one thing” is trump. There isn’t one. Precisely.
How to deal
Ok, so once you’ve breathed a big, deep sigh and reconciled yourself to the fact that it’s never going to be that simple, what next?
The answer is that you have to take each and every decision and figure out what trumps in that specific instance. The good news is that you don’t really need a single priority, you can usually accommodate at least a couple. You just have to be willing to sacrifice somewhere, for at least a short time.
First, identify all the variables in play with the decision you’re making. If you’re talking about a product launch date, you’re automatically playing with time to market (which quickly leads to revenue), quality, customer satisfaction, brand perception, and cost. Figure out the links between them. Which are tied together and which are in tension? Where is there an “or,” as in “we can have this OR this, but not both.”
Then consider your options. You could launch quickly to be first to market, knowing that quality will suffer. In that scenario, the short-term revenue bump might be offset by increased costs as the calls into the service center soar or you have to return or replace product. Alternatively, you could choose to delay, at least until you have 70% of the issues fixed. Then you can launch still in good time, but with fewer repercussions on customer satisfaction and service center staffing, but you might miss the first to market benefit.
For each scenario, lay out the benefits and the downsides. Be explicit about the risks of different options. Then decide. Or if you’re really sure that you’re not empowered to decide, take your recommendation to whomever needs to bless it. “There’s no perfect answer in this scenario. Based on this analysis, I recommend we do x. Can you see anything I’ve missed in my assessment?”
Here’s the irony of managers not making tough priority decisions. While you’re busy believing that you’re not senior enough or smart enough or empowered enough to make the decision about what takes priority, the person who works for you (presumably with less seniority, less knowledge, and less empowerment) is already making the call by choosing how to spend their time while they wait for you to get off your ass and make a decision. How funny is that?