5 Secrets of Priority Management

by Marcus Varner
, 5 min read

Every January, nearly everyone resolves to get more organized and more productive—to make a concerted effort to focus on what's most important, both personally and professionally.

But if you're a manager who would like to take advantage of the new year momentum with your team, this can be tricky. After all, each individual you work with may have an entirely different definition of "important."


See "Collaboration Tips: 40 to Get Your Team Communicating Like Pros" for tips on how you can open up the lines of communication on your team.


Your problem has never been that people are deliberately, knowingly wasting time on unimportant work.

No one thinks, "Here's a task that doesn't matter at all. I'll tackle it first!" Your team members certainly have reasons for organizing their work the way they do. The tasks they work on seem valuable to them, even if they're not your top priority.

So how can you achieve greater alignment in your team, where everyone has a shared vision of what matters most and is working together toward common objectives? The answer can be found in effective priority management, and these five simple secrets will help you do it right.

1. Make Sure You Understand Top Company Objectives

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It's essential to practice upward alignment before attempting downward alignment.

You could be managing the most unified, productive team on the planet, but if the goals they're achieving aren't furthering the objectives most valued by upper management, what will that get you?

You don't want to be the team that spends 2016 speeding a dozen new products to market when the executive team is more interested in reinvesting in the flagship product.

If you aren't clear about overall company goals, not to mention your boss's objectives for you and your team, it could be a failing on the part of upper management. But sitting back and waiting for clarity to float down from on high will hurt you more than it hurts them.

So speak up. Be bold. Proactively manage your boss until you have the tools and information you need to succeed.

2. Align Your Team Goals with Higher Company Objectives

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Armed with clarity around the company's intended destination, it's time to get your team members all rowing in the same direction.

According to one Harvard Business study, cited in a recent Workfront white paper, 95 percent of a company's employees are unaware of or do not understand their company's strategy.

To combat this staggering statistic on your team, start with clear and frequent communication, especially about top company objectives. Set team and individual goals that align with company goals, and make sure you're measuring employees toward these objectives.

Next, address the unspoken assumptions about day-to-day prioritization.

We all come with our own personal biases about what matters most. Some will prioritize tasks based on who requested them—the higher the requestor on the org chart or more loudly they shout, the more important the request.

Others depend more on when items are due—the earlier the due date, the more attention it gets. Still others will rely on their own pet whys—if it aligns strongly with their personal passions and preferences, it will get done first.

Instead, train your team to consider project value first. Projects that will deliver high ROI to the enterprise rank highest in importance, no matter who assigned them or how urgent they may seem.

But who determines what's valuable? That's where secret number three comes in.

3. Standardize and Score Work Requests

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Create standardized processes to initiate every task or project in the same format every time.

Work management software solutions have these capabilities built in, making sure employees aren't wasting valuable time combing through emails, voicemails, sticky notes, and meeting minutes to figure out what's expected of them.

They'll know they have one work queue to consult, where essential details are readily accessible.

The Project Management Institute (PMI) reports that organizations with successful work performance measures (on time, on budget, and goals met) are almost three times more likely than organizations with poor work performance to use standardized practices throughout the organization, and have better outcomes as a result.

Standardized requests alone aren't quite enough, though, if they don't include some indication of importance, value, or priority.

In new research findings from Business Improvements Architects, only 32 percent of respondents said they had a process for prioritizing projects.

In the same study, 68 percent of organizations said they had no systematic approach in place to prioritize projects or link them to corporate and strategic goals.

The solution? Implement a scorecard system that assigns strategic point values to all work, helping everyone easily determine which projects are essential and which are more flexible. Encourage an open dialogue as priorities shift and clash throughout the cycle of work.

4. Encourage Your Team to Make Time for Important but Not Urgent Work

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Steven Covey's seven famous habits have now been in circulation for 27 years—an entire lifetime for many of today's enterprise workers. But it never hurts to be reminded of tried-and-true principles.

Covey suggested dividing work into four quadrants:

  1. Important and Urgent
  2. Important and Not Urgent
  3. Not Important and Urgent
  4. Not Important and Not Urgent

It's easy to find yourself spending too much time hanging out in quadrant three (Not Important and Urgent), and without a scorecard system to help you define universal standards of "importance," many of your team members will be.

After all, "urgent" is one quality that's easy to identify, while other qualities can be more subjective. Make sure your prioritization system is designed to keep your team in quadrants one and two most of the time, with extremely rare forays into quadrant four.

5. Make Course Corrections Along the Way

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Once you've absorbed strategic company objectives, created a series of complementary goals for your own team, and figured out how to rank each incoming project in terms of value, your work has just begun.

Now you need to make sure you have a good bird's eye view of what's going on with your team, so you can offer feedback and make adjustments along the way.

If you follow an Agile project management approach, your weekly stand-up meeting is a great place to do this, but it doesn't always require a meeting. Cloud-based work management solutions make it easy to offer feedback and course corrections minute by minute.

It's important to speak up when you see team members working on unimportant, not urgent work ahead of high-value projects, but it's arguably even more crucial to offer praise and positive reinforcement when you see:

  • Team members prioritizing highest-value items first.
  • Team members making time for important but not urgent work.
  • Team members holding each other accountable to top priorities.
  • Team members making suggestions for process improvements.

An Ongoing Effort

Like eating and organizing, work prioritization is not one of those things that can be done "once and for all." It's an ongoing effort that requires constant vigilance.

But, you'll find that practicing alignment in both directions, standardizing and scoring work requests, making time for important but not urgent work, and offering course corrections and positive feedback along the way is more than worth the effort.

After all, a boat full of people all rowing in the same direction will get much farther much faster than if everyone is focused on different destinations. It's your job to point them to the desired port, give them the tools they need, and then stay out of their way.


Download our free guide, "The Complete Guide to Request Management" to learn more about how you can prioritize your work for better results.

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