Planning to Plan: Aligning Priorities, Part 2

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In my last post, I talked about the importance of a shared context, as a prerequisite for building consensus around a team’s priorities to move forward. I also reviewed some approaches to leading the team through developing this shared context. This shared context needs to include an understanding of:

  • what we really do
  • what we have
  • what we lack
  • our customers’ and stakeholders’ expectations of us
  • how we’re perceived by them currently
  • risks we face
  • opportunities we have to be more than we are

Once we’ve established this context, it’s much easier for the team to answer a few key forward-looking questions:

  • What is the one most important goal we need to focus on in the next several months?
  • What are the outcomes we need to create, in the next several months, to support this goal?
  • What are the key things we need to be doing, to achieve these outcomes?

In his excellent book The Advantage, Patrick Lencioni writes, “Every organization, if it wants to create a sense of alignment and focus, must have a single top priority within a given period of time.”

Most organizations have far too many “top” priorities. This virtually ensures that none of them will be accomplished, because it sends team members off in different directions, focused on different (often competing) goals, fostering misalignment across the organization. It’s fine to have several secondary priorities (that, hopefully, are aligned with the top priority…) but there can be only one top priority, and everyone needs to be clear on what it is, and why it’s important. This is almost always a qualitative goal; it’s not just a metric to be achieved. It also needs to be time-bound. The team needs to  understand that we’re focused on materially advancing toward this goal, over a specific period of time. When the time period is over, we fully expect to have a different top priority, though it’s possible this same one may persist.

Sometimes, this is a forward-looking priority that is crystal clear to intuitive leaders (“identify our next great product or service”), or it may be a tactical imperative driven by the realities on the ground (“focus on sales to overcome a dip in revenue”). But I often find that the next one top priority may not be so clear, and that the team needs to distill it from all the priorities they have swirling around the organization.

A good method for this is a consensus workshop, built around the key focus question: “What are the most important things we need to accomplish right now?” A question like this engages both sensing and intuitive personality types. The “S” types on the team will see the importance of the “blocking and tackling” that needs to happen to support the business, will see gaps in operational processes supporting the larger goals, and will see constraints that need to be removed. The “N” types will see larger flows of activity that need to occur, macro-level risks and constraints that need to be addressed, and latent opportunities that could be tapped.

The structure of a consensus workshop enables individual, small group, and full team brainstorming and “gestalting” of ideas, in a way that distills larger, summary-level goals and builds consensus around those goals. You can read more about how a consensus workshop works here. Once this list of summary-level goals is established, it’s useful to have the team rank them into A (critical), B (essential), and C (important) priority levels. Dot voting can be used to quickly accomplish this. Then discuss the results, and have some dialog if there is dissent.

The consensus workshop can yield a good list of desired outcomes, as well as a starting list of supporting activities (the original ideas generated by individuals and small groups). Then the question becomes, “Which of these outcomes are aligned toward accomplishing a single, most important, over-arching goal, and what is that goal?” Depending on the size of the team, this may be a healthy discussion for the team as a whole, or it may be best addressed with a smaller leadership team. Often, this goal just “jumps out” at the team, from the clarity that has been built around the supporting priorities. If it doesn’t jump out immediately, it will become clear after some dialogue on the question.

Publish the results of the session, with the top priority goal and the supporting outcomes / goals clearly identified. Then charter teams to develop activity plans and metrics for supporting these goals. This will yield a set of rich action plans and metrics that are well aligned with organizational priorities.

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