Clarify Your Team's Priorities

A lot of management advice focuses on the one-to-one interactions a manager has with each employee, and rightfully so: those interactions are important.  However, another key aspect of the role is the overall team environment the manager creates.  Concepts like "synergy" and "greater than the sum of the parts" are cheesy and overused, but they do reflect a fundamental truth: an effective leader gets more results from the team than the individuals are capable of achieving on their own.  But how do you create an environment where that can happen, especially if the overall organization is dysfunctional?  (Spoiler alert: all organizations are dysfunctional in some way, some more than others.)

One of the ways you can maximize your team's results is to clearly identify what matters most.  A lot of things are important, but when push comes to shove and tough trade-offs have to be made, what are the non-negotiables?  

Part 1: Team Priorities

Review the list of priorities below. Add any other priorities that might be specific to your situation or organization.

  • Accuracy/Precision
  • Anticipation/Initiative
  • Communication
  • Comprehensiveness
  • Discretion
  • Ease of Use/Access
  • Efficiency/Speed
  • Flexibility
  • Knowledge
  • Personalization
  • Predictability
  • Problem-Solving
  • Quality
  • Recovery
  • Reliability
  • Risk Management
  • Value/ROI

Identify any priorities that are not relevant to your team's key stakeholders, and cross those items off.  For example, if your team provides marketing or PR for the rest of the company, "Discretion" isn't a key stakeholder priority.  It's am important part of professionalism, of course, but not something that your team's clients are specifically looking for.  If your team processes payroll, "Value/ROI" could be crossed off, because that is not what your stakeholders need most from you - they're probably much more concerned about your reliability and accuracy.

Assign a letter to each of the remaining priorities so that you can easily compare them.  Create a chart with the letters going across and down.  

Compare priority A and priority B.  Both might be important, but if push came to shove, which one would be most important?  Write the letter of that option in the empty cell that intersects A and B.  (You can think about which one your team would get in *more* trouble for not doing, if that helps.)

Repeat the comparison for each of the remaining priorities.  Only review one pair at a time - that helps to really identify what matters most.

Once you've compared all of the items, count up all the times each item appears in the comparison cells and put that total next to the row for that item.  

Identify the top item based on the totals.  If there is a tie, use the head-to-head result when those two items were compared with each other.  This item is now the guiding priority for your team.

Part 2: Your own priorities

Repeat the same process for just your own work as the manager of the team, using your employees as your stakeholders for this round.  Identify what they most need from you, which is most likely to be something like "Problem-Solving" and not "Knowledge," (which might have been what got you the job but isn't as critical now).  

Part 3: Sign-off

(Optional)  It might be a good idea to share both charts with your boss and get their agreement with the results.  If you were to ask them what was most important, they could easily give you the entire list above.  You'd not asking what is generally important, though: you're asking what priority is truly the most important.   If a tradeoff has to be made, what needs to come out on top?

You probably aren't shocked by what rose to the top, and your team is already probably operating in most cases as if this it the top priority.  What's powerful about this exercise is being able to make it explicit that, of all the important things, this is the most important, and to get sign-off from your boss that this is in fact the case.

This will also help in situation s where there are no good answers.  When you're having to choose between the lesser of two evils, having a clear top priority can help determine which one is truly lesser.  

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