3 Steps to Take the Pain Out of Prioritization

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By Julie Springer

April 7, 2022

One of the most common challenges for leadership teams is how to set priorities. Everyone has different ideas about what is most important, the conversation is difficult and you either fail to set clear priorities at all or leave with a list of priorities that isn’t well-supported. This can lead to:

  • Conflict and damaged relationships within the leadership team
  • Delivery teams going in different directions and struggling to manage dependencies
  • Frustration and lack of motivation because people don’t have confidence that they are working on what is most important
  • Slow progress toward achieving organizational goals

There are 3 steps you can take to turn this around - not only taking the pain out of prioritization but making it a meaningful and even enjoyable experience.


1 - Make it Collaborative

There is nothing worse than prioritizing based on “the loudest voice wins” or just going with what the Big Boss wants, even if no one understands why or agrees. In a well-facilitated, collaborative session, everyone’s voice is heard, and the rules of the game are clear and fair.

Who to include:

  • Include everyone who needs to agree on the priorities. Avoid the problem of rehashing the conversation after the meeting because a key decision-maker was missing. If someone must miss, ask them to appoint someone to act in their place.
  • Include representatives from the delivery teams. This provides an opportunity to get input from the people who are closest to the work and provides insight to the teams on how and why decisions are made on priorities.
    • Note - if your current process is messy and conflict-ridden, run a few meetings using the new process to work out the kinks and then start inviting team representatives.
  • Identify a facilitator for the meeting. Choose someone who is skilled at facilitating and who is not a decision-maker for setting the priorities. The facilitator can stay focused on the meeting process and supporting healthy group dynamics.

How to run it:

  • Gather the list of items for prioritization in advance of the meeting. Ask the participants to write their items in a consistent format (such as title and short description) and to be prepared to speak to the value and effort of the item.
  • Set clear evaluation criteria. There is no perfect way to evaluate options, but there are many helpful and good-enough methods. Choose a method and the criteria that will be used and share it in advance of the meeting so that everyone knows what to expect. This creates confidence in the process and levels the playing field, allowing you to move quickly toward agreement.
  • When we facilitate for our clients, we use the Weighted Shortest Job First (WSJF) approach to evaluate based on value and effort to identify quick wins. We do this through a collaborative workshop where everyone gets involved in evaluating how the items compare and deciding what to do first.


2 - Make it Visual

In a prioritization meeting, everyone has a different picture in their head. They are tracking the list of items to be prioritized, their understanding of what those items are and how they relate to each other. That’s a lot to keep track of for yourself, much less trying to understand what others are thinking.

Using a physical or electronic shared workspace to visualize the parts and pieces solves this problem - creating a clear picture and leading to much better results. Provide a shared workspace and tool that everyone can see and update.

  • If you are in a room together, you can use notecards to write the title and brief description of each item to be prioritized. Move the cards around on the table as you work through your collaborative evaluation process.
  • For a web conference, the tool can be as simple as a shared Google document or Excel spreadsheet in MS Teams.
  • When we facilitate for our clients, we use an electronic whiteboard tool called Miro and templates we designed for gathering and sorting through the options. Miro has an advantage over Google documents and spreadsheets because the interface is more flexible and engaging, with sticky notes and connecting lines.


3 - Make it Consistent

Prioritization needs to happen regularly, so that you can provide updated priorities to teams as things change and they move through delivery cycles. Consider who needs to know what the priorities are and set the schedule to meet that need. For example, if your teams are doing quarterly strategic planning, they will need guidance on priorities every quarter. In this case, plan ahead and set time aside prior to the team’s planning to work on setting priorities.

Another benefit of regularly scheduled prioritization sessions is that you will become better at working together to set priorities if you do it regularly and follow a consistent approach. If you follow all these tips, then the meeting will become valuable instead of painful. You might even look forward to it!

We would love to support you in putting this process in place. We find that our clients benefit from having us facilitate the first session and providing you with the tools and approach so that you can do it on your own. Click here to meet with us to discuss how we can help. 


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