Multiple Priorities? Really? – Updated
This article is updated from the version published earlier in 2018.
Very likely, the following scene will be familiar to you.
I was invited to facilitate a strategic workshop. I was told fairly early on, “We have 32 strategic objectives we need to meet.”
“OK,” I replied. “Which one is the most important?”
You can probably guess my client’s reply…
“They all are.”
Now, what’s wrong with this picture?
If you are inclined to say, “Nothing, that’s just the way business has to be in these complicated days,” then I would ask you to think with me for a moment. Too many of our organisations are like the proverbial donkey who is stalled into inaction because of two competing piles of hay.
Surprise Findings in Neuroscience
The more we learn about the human brain, the more we learn how awesome is its capacity, but also how limited it is to consciously focus on things in the foreground of our awareness. Neuroscientists put the number of items we can concurrently focus upon to be as low as four.
Neuroscientists say we can only focus on four things concurrently consciously.
So we have a dilemma. There are all these targets our organisations set us to meet, but we can only focus on a few.
Recently, as part of the current release of our Leading Yourself Workshop, I released a book review of Gary Keller’s The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results. At one point, Keller explained that the word Priority entered into the English language in the 14th Century. It came from the Latin word prior meaning first. What surprised me was that it was only made plural in the 20th Century: priorities. Think about that. To previous generations, to talk about priorities would have been madness.
In the English language the word "priority" was always singular until the 20th Century. I think this is significant.
I suspect the human brain, and a team, and a project, and even an organisation works better with a priority than it does with priorities. Priorities (plural) begin to generate confusion, internal competition for attention and erode focus.
What if we were to budget to one priority in any given moment?
OK, complex organisations do have a number of matters to achieve, but budgeting to one priority begins to make us dig deeper. We begin to see the dependencies between different objectives, where some enable others. For example, here is an Outcome Relationship Model of an Olympics Legacy development.
We begin to see the real drivers of organisational success. Maybe some of these objectives or targets can be met, or more easily met if we were to focus on the one thing.
Focusing on One Thing
As an individual, if I invest time now in making this blog post a priority, in focusing upon it exclusively to everything else that clamours for my attention, it may help me meet some of my other objectives later.
Focus is inseparable from this kind of singular attention.
Focus is inseparable from singular attention.
Now, this is not to say that my priority may not change during the day; it does. Nor will my priority today be the same as tomorrow. Or next week. Or next year. Priority is the matter I should focus on now.
In my coaching, I recommend clients identify maybe three or four planned tasks they intend to achieve each day. Among those, I ask them to identify their MIT, their Most Important Task. This is the daily priority, that one thing they commit to achieving that day. The real value, though, is not the MIT itself; it's in the process of deciding that MIT. This is where we gain clarity and leverage over our day.
Now, this is not to say that we can expect no surprises during our day. What I identify in the high-performers, the Positive Outliers, is a mental agility to switch in a moment their priority. Something comes up. It requires urgent attention. They fully focus on that task. And when they are done, they return to their MIT. This is very different from multi-tasking two or more priorities at the same time.