An old Russian Proverb says: If you chase two rabbits, you will not catch either one. Think about
One of my colleagues, Dennis Drent, was a new CEO of a specialty insurance company. It was an operational turnaround situation and much needed to be done to correct course. With the best of intentions, Dennis tried to fix all the problems in his first year! Needless to say, nothing got done in that first 12 months. In year two, Dennis directed the management team to choose the three top priorities after rigorous debate. All three initiatives were completed and the results began to improve immediately.
When I worked for US Cellular, a new CEO came on board and while I did not subscribe to everything he said, I did like his approach to strategic initiatives. He told us that we will focus on doing one thing well and when that is complete we will move on to the next priority.
I personally believe that there is a middle ground whereby the resources and competencies of a company determine how many projects can be handled simultaneously. Yet even with multiple projects, when a critical need arises, resources are refocused on the top priority. So how do you know what is really a priority? How do you set priorities? How do you manage priorities? And how do you incorporate their prioritization results into a "business battle rhythm?”
Here are 6 steps to setting and managing priorities. If you want copies of these tools, please write to me at email@example.com and I will send them to you.
Clearly define the project or initiative. Make sure there is clarity of the end results and the metrics for success. One tool we use is the Opportunity Template, a picture of which is located here.
Note that each project has a clear owner, i.e. the person defined as “A” on the top line and has the basic tasks and metrics laid out.
Develop and use a process to rate and score the various, and perhaps disparate projects. One tool we use is called the Analytical Hierarchical Process. It ensures that the evaluators and decision makers agree on the way the projects are evaluated.
In this case, I show a one level system and the key areas of evaluation are strategic, financial, competencies, and operational. Each area is weighted and a score can be given on how well the project meets that criteria. A total score is then developed and an ordinal ranking of the projects can be determined. If there is a legal or regulatory requirement that must be completed in the planning cycle, that automatically goes to the top of the list.
While many executives don’t like a mechanical process, the exercise enables all projects to be evaluated in a consistent manner based on what the organization or company wants to achieve. If there are lots of projects, the executives can see what is on top and what is on the bottom and can debate which project is to be staffed with the right resources. The goal is to help the decision making, not to let a mechanical process determine the answer.
Resource the project with the right people. Develop a strong team. This sounds so simple yet sometimes is hard to do. At C-Level Partners, one of the tools we use is called RACI. This enables projects to be resourced correctly. Eventually, depending on the number of projects, companies will run out of the right resources as those resources will become a limiting constraint. RACI stands for:
- Responsible: who will be assigned to work on the project
- Accountable: who has the authority to make a decision and whose head will roll if something goes bump in the night?
- Consulted: who are the stakeholders that will be consulted before a decision is made
- Informed: who has to be kept updated on the project e.g. those whose work depends on the project?
Track progress through a dashboard and make the project part of the organization or businesses “battle rhythm.”A business battle rhythm is a way the organization manages its business activities, processes, decisions and control points. If these projects are priorities, in my opinion, they should be part of the executive dashboard where the results are measured, tracked, and adjustments made to the plan. We use a stop light tool on the overall project as well as on the subordinate tasks. Each task or project is given a Green light (things are on target and going well, a Yellow light (the project is in for some turbulence and this is an early warning of potential issues), or a Red light (we are missing milestones and metrics and need to put more resources on the project, change course, or abandon the activity).
Note on abandoning projects. Abandoning projects is something that is difficult. Many companies never kill a project because there is too much politics in admitting failure. At one company we worked, executives were brutal. If a project was off course and in retrospect they made a mistake the executives killed the project. When I was a VP at Ameritech I publicly made a special award to people who made the right business decision and one award was to a director for killing a favorite project. The person who received the award did not want it because he perceived it would kill his career. It did not! People were in shock at first. But abandoning projects for the right reason yielded some discipline to the company as people knew if a project they were on didn’t perform there would be accountability.
Proactively manage risks. We believe in managing risk and the impact of those risks on any project especially those that are strategic, revenue oriented, or operationally critical. One way to do this is through a tool called the Risk Impact Matrix which lays out the risks to a strategic objective, a project, a product or other priority. Once the risks and potential impact is specified, the person in charge of the opportunity or project will work with the team to determine ways to develop contingency plans. These contingency plans will be put into place if the overall project or even some of the tactics veer off course. See Brian Newton’s blog on ways to measure and manage at http://clevelpartners.blogspot.com/2016/02/defining-ways-to-measure-and-manage-risk.html.
Conduct post mortems. Every organization is a learning organization. What this means is that we learn from our successes but sometimes we learn more from our failures. After a project is completed or terminated, the team lead, the person accountable, should provide a post mortem debriefing to determine what went well, what did not go well, and share the learnings of the project with other executives and team leads.
Let’s see how one fictionalized company handled priority setting. Let’s look at a fictionalized company called HyperCorp. The executives developed a list of projects prior to an executive off site that each thought would be important to the company and their functional area. The initial list of 25 projects was winnowed down to 7 based on their determination that these projects met their financial, operational, strategic goals and they had the competencies and skills to resource these projects. Some projects would have high priorities for the executive team itself, others for HR, others for IT and still others for Marketing and Sales.
This executive team concluded that of these 7 projects, two – integrating a newly acquired company and updating operating systems to conform to a new regulatory compliance requirement had to be accomplished. These two initiatives consumed a substantial amount of IT resources; yet the good news was that integrating two companies used operational IT resources whereas updating the operating system required application development.
The Marketing and Sales team had to make a choice as it did not have the resources to perform more than one initiative and because IT resources were consumed on the two higher priorities, Marketing and Sales had to forgo launching a new product at this time.
The team decided to focus on only four projects:
1. Updating the operating system for compliance
2. Integrating the newly acquired company
3. Redesigning and updating the website to remain competitive and to improve customer acquisition
4. Designing a new sales compensation plan to retain and engage the sales team
One executive was given primary responsibility (the “A”) for each respective initiative, was required to develop a detailed project plan using the RACI system, and was obligated to report the status in monthly operations reviews. The initiatives were announced to the entire company with the CEO stating that if anyone is ever in doubt about priorities, these initiatives get “fed first” in the order listed. Case closed.
If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority!!! Accordingly, this blog provides some structure and tools to be used by corporate executives to manage their priorities. The number of priorities may vary in different organizations. Yet, in my estimation, at the top level of each company or organization, there should be a clear focus on no more than 2-4 priorities which are properly resourced. As one priority is finished, then the company can move on to the next one. We, at C-Level Partners are here to help you and your company with determining your priorities and advising on managing these projects.
If you have questions, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also please like this blog and feel free to share it or forward it to your colleagues and friends who might have an interest.