Why Setting Priorities is Hard

Think of Caesar facing Alesia, the Gallic settlement where Vercingetorix himself was taking refuge. After years and years of fighting on hostile territory the end is in sight and he can obtain the victory that will make him a hero and that will secure him a better hand in the looming conflict with the Senate. He opted for a bold strategy, one that will make good use of the Romans capacity to build fortifications in record time. A strategy that will make him one of the greatest military leader of all times. The plan was to surround the Gallic town and starve them to death. And if they happen to get reinforcements, build a secondary wall to protect the Roman soldiers for the relief force. Now, once this simple and bold plan was decided upon, do you see Caesar asking himself "I wonder what the priorities should be here? Should we get digging, or get some extra vegetables from the supermarket. Ohhhh…. And we need some extra flags. And some lavender for my bath." That's ridiculous … right? They must have started to dig wholes and cut down trees.

You and I don't have Caesar's problems (or his ambition for that matter). But we do deal with priorities and goal setting in our personal or professional life. And I recently realized that if you have problems  in picking and sticking with a list of priorities you don't have a priorities or a goal-setting problem. Most probably you have a strategy problem. Strategy details how a team will use the power available to the them to exercise control over sets of circumstances to achieve certain objectives.  Once that is decided the priorities become pretty clear.

Lack of strategy and the illusion of choice

Priorities. Goals. It seems you have so many choices. You could focus on this. But you could also focus on that. How to choose? The possibilities are infinite.

The possibilities are infinite only when there is not a clear path forward. When you don't know where you are going any road will take you there. Understanding the available resources and the means to put those to good use to achieve an objectives limits you significantly. Which is good. Good prioritization takes skill, which comes with experience. But very rarely you have to pick from hundreds of possibilities. Once you know what the long-term plan of action is priorities will come easy.

Picking what to focus on is not a game of divine inspiration. An engineer who is working on his first startup may think that he has so many things he could focus on and that it's completely up to him to decide. But if he is following a lean strategy than his options are quite limited. In this case talking to some clients and validating his assumptions was highlighted by many successful investors and entrepreneurs as the right course of action. He should focus on that.

We may be thinking we have a choice. In most cases it is just an illusion and there are only a few good ones to pick from.

The bad defaults

Picking a strategy is hard.  Most of suck at this game. And the same is true for most companies. Very few corporations have clearly-articulated mission statements and plans that people in the company can align to. But that does not mean employees are not asked to pick priorities or goals. And that's when people revert to non-actionable, vague statements like "Quality is our priority" or "We should optimize for client satisfaction".  These types of priorities are plain bad. Let's take quality for example:

First of all, it lacks clarity. What does quality mean? How do we define it? Because my checklist for a quality product is so much different than yours?  Shouldn't quality be implied by any company? All companies should offer quality products and services. Who comes into the office excited about building some "mediocre" product today.

Quality is also not actionable. As with goals, priorities that don't translate into systems are useless. This is one of those areas where less is not more. Without systems to ensure there is some work to support it, the prioritization exercise is useless. But it does sound good!

Before deciding priorities try to think about the bigger goal and have a model for reaching it. Once that is clear priorities will come naturally.