What do you work on first thing in the morning? What are your team working on this week? How long did it take you to answer? How many items did you list? In Good to Great, Jim Collins writes “If you have more than three priorities, you don’t have any.” Yet these days it’s quite common to hear Managers talking about team priorities (in plural with emphasis) rather than admitting they have lost sight of the goalpost.
When teams try to take on so many different projects, nothing gets done. If everything is important, then nothing is. The word “Priority” is meant to be a singular noun denoting the one thing you ought to focus on. It only gained the plural form recently perhaps in response to demands by overstretched workers who no longer have any idea what they are supposed to be working on.
Collins insistence on having no more than three priorities (I will indulge the plural for now) is rooted in sound logic. Three is a good number because most people can remember three things. Limiting important tasks to three also forces Managers to be specific instead of vague. It is not enough to hire people and stay out of their way. Most people require direction. The majority of team members do not have the full picture of the organisation that Leaders do. That is why it falls on Team Leads to show their departments what they hope to achieve and support them to map out how.
The most successful Departments are like a good Football team. The team has a Goalkeeper, Defenders, Midfielders and Strikers but when they play, each player does not think of themselves as a separate entity. They see themselves as a team. When the referee blows the final whistle, the team knows the only numbers that matter are those on the scoreboard. That simple metric is a very clear priority. It doesn’t matter how well the Striker plays if the team keeps conceding goals all season.
Many teams today will admit to not knowing what they are supposed to achieve. Unlike the football team, their work is often part of a larger organisation and their Team Leads fail to provide a clear metric and sense of purpose. Under such circumstances, it is easy for each member to try doing their own thing. Petty jealousies, conflict and rivalries quickly emerge.
If you are leading a team, you should ask yourself two questions: What is our priority? Does the rest of the team know? Knowing what to focus on is the first step. Figuring out how to do it comes later.