First Things First: Four Steps Toward Developing a Culture of Prioritization

“First things first, second things never.” – Shirley Conlan, British journalist and novelist.

We all know the expression “first things first.” But what’s a high priority to one person might have low value to another, so it takes time to get everyone on a team on the same page with projects and deadlines. Effective prioritization requires teamwork, training, and trust for it to become automatic. Your team may not have arrived there yet, as it requires what the military calls “time in grade.”

Military tactics, lingo, philosophy, and process have filtered into modern business culture for good reason: business is almost a kind of warfare in these days of constant change, even though you may never find yourself on the front line. Organizing masses of people for dead-serious competition is something business and the military have in common, and both require prioritization strategies to function.  Military organizations even prioritize and triage battlefield casualties according to specific levels. In business, we prioritize and triage according to urgency and importance.

I won’t go into that in detail here (it’s in my books), but obviously Priority 1 is anything immediately life-threatening—either literally on the battlefield, or figuratively for your organization.

Your team may have a prioritization plan already, but does it work? If not—if you’re floundering in a sea of tasks and projects where priority isn’t a priority—then sit down and work out a culture of prioritization you can agree on and use to maximize your individual and collective productivity. It’s not just a good idea; it may save your team and your jobs.

Here’s what I suggest you do first:

  1. Define high-value.  Come to a mutual understand of how your team defines top priority and high-value, which probably won’t be your personal favorite or pet projects. The old saying about “eating a live frog” applies here, though you don’t always have to eat it first thing in the morning. The point of this metaphor, as popularized by my colleague Brian Tracy, is to identify the hard tasks you may want to put off—and do them anyway. For most of us, the best plan is to do them right when we decide we don’t want to. When you’re done, everything else goes so much easier. Even if it takes half the day to eat a frog.

  2. Set levels of precedence. Clarify your strategic priorities and where they fit in your new “let’s get things done” hierarchy. Important and urgent items—for example, replacing a firewall that just failed before someone steals all your data—should sit at the top of the list, followed by important but non-urgent items; say, replacing your enterprise software eventually, or doing your daily backups. Pretty much everything else can become “second things never” per Conlan; at most, you handle them when you have down time and cash.

  3. Establish a facilitator to monitor the process. You don’t need a micromanager to hover over your shoulder, watching you like a hawk, but you also don’t want to just let go of the “priority maintenance” until it’s back to pet projects and easy stuff. Have someone on the team function as project or team manager, where they check priorities against the big picture every few days to make sure the team priorities remain on track or institute a simple teamwide project tracking software feature that alerts you when things go astray, such as Slack, Asana, or Basecamp.

  4. Follow through and adjust. Schedule short, regular team meetings to ensure you remain on the strait and narrow. At longer intervals, review your definition of high-level and your precedence levels. As your business changes in response to societal changes or consumer demands, your priorities will change. I doubt jacks or marbles are high-priority projects in most toy companies now, but once, they were big deals.

Hit the Heights

The projects and tasks you and your team are most comfortable with probably aren’t the ones that bring in the biggest bucks, keep your business running smoothly, or best align with your organizational goals—but you must make the hard changes or lose your jobs. No one really wants to work in the sewers, either, but if no one did, every toilet in America would back up eventually. There are tough, boring, but crucial jobs in every business, and it’s up to you and your team to get together and do them.


About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

© 2019 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.

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