Lessons learned – prioritising

Introduction

At a presentation by Don Harrison, President of IMA, I was totally inspired by his comment “stop talking about prioritisation and start talking about sequencing”. Don was referring to the problem that senior executives too often have multiple top priorities. This means that whilst they believe they are prioritising they are in fact categorising. They are reviewing the portfolio and making the distinction between essential, important and nice to have. However, they are not taking the difficult decisions to identify what comes first and what comes next.

Don believes sequencing is the answer. This means asking penetrating questions about each initiative to understand what shape of jigsaw puzzle piece it is and how it contributes to the overall jigsaw. I applaud the idea but these questions are not being asked.

Problem

As with everything I think its important to try to understand the problem before finding a solution. So why are executives living with a situation where there are multiple “top” priorities and staff are trying to manage multiple calls on their time to deliver changes whilst still maintaining “business as usual”?

I think there are multiple factors, so consider which ones are most relevant for your organisation:

1. The effort required to make change happen is invisible, because it is sunk costs. Staff salaries are already baked into the cost structure, and as most change is about changing how an organisation works, the majority of the work is done by existing staff.

2. Taking decisions is hard. It means making a choice, with the attendant risk that we have made the wrong choice. Executives are human too, so like the rest of us they worry they will be judged for “backing the wrong horse”. Just think how you feel when the lane you are in when stuck in traffic goes slower than the other lanes. You criticise yourself for having chosen the wrong lane.

3. There is too much choice. The bigger the range to choose from, the longer it takes to make a choice. If you only choose vanilla or strawberry ice cream you will make a swift choice but if are in an Italian cafe with 50 ice cream flavours you are going to be at the counter for a long time, and when you walk away you will be watching the enjoyment on the faces of those that have chosen different ice creams to validate if you have made the “right” choice.

Solution

To encourage our executives to create this sequence, it helps if we have tried to provide answers to the following questions:

1. Identify the relationships between the initiatives to work out which initiative creates the outcomes needed by other initiatives.

2. Compare the relative contribution of each initiative to the strategic objectives of the organisation. Perhaps the ones with the highest contribution are the ones that have only a few steps between “create outcome X to achieve objective Y”

3. Compare the relative sizes of the benefits versus costs offered by each initiative. Consider if those that offer the highest value for the least cost are more important than those that offer less benefits.

4. Identify those initiatives that have identified and planned the necessary resources to achieve their outcomes. Bring forward those initiatives where people (often the most constrained resource) are in place and ready to start work.

5. Compare the impact on “business as usual” (I.e. levels of operational risk) and bring forward those that have a plan to mitigate any negative effects on customer service and staff engagement.

Conclusion

This is another example of how essential effective portfolio management is to successful change initiatives. It is the skills of managing a portfolio, seeing the whole picture and not just a few “important” initiatives that make the difference between being very busy and achieving our objectives.

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