Leonie McCrann, CEO of leading change and project management firm Marbral Advisory, discusses prioritisation misalignment, what it means for individuals and organisations and how it can threaten change, productivity and strategic objectives.
When it comes to prioritising, why do we so often focus on the things which don’t really move the needle? The concept of prioritising is simple - what are the things which will give us the most value? Customer value, business value, revenue value, environmental value, employee value, risk mitigation…the list goes on. Is it because the list is too long or is it because we don’t really want to prioritise?
On an individual level, this is usually down to our own personal wants and needs, what we feel most comfortable doing and what our experience tells us results in the greatest reward. We get a hit of dopamine (the body’s chemical messenger for pleasure) when we complete a project/task, so it’s not surprising that we want to finish what we started, regardless of whether it is still a priority. And it is also unsurprising that we gravitate towards the tasks which we feel we can do, the “comfort zone”. We are more likely to achieve these and get that dopamine hit. As human beings, we also prioritise high reward memories[i]. This means that where an experience or interaction resulted in what we felt was high-value reward, we are more likely to commit it to our memory bank and our brains will replay it when at rest. These memories are what we tap into when we are thinking through the relative reward of a particular task and will influence how we prioritise.
This means we have an innate tendency to do the easy, quick, perceived high reward things and don’t start those which are outside the comfort zone. We delay it, dance around it, and find various reasons why it couldn’t be done right. In essence, as individuals we don’t really prioritise to move the needle or worse still, we bury the needle under the haystack of “other” things.
We are also social creatures, and our brains are programmed to make people a priority. A growing body of research[ii] shows how, from very early infancy, even from birth, our brains are designed to recognise and give priority to social rather than non-social signals. This means that when prioritising, we will also consider the social implications of our decisions and these tend to be more aligned to our emotional brain. Again, we will avoid what we perceive as “difficult” conversations and will generally prioritise to avoid these. We will also consider the impact of our tasks. For example, what is the social standing of the person who is likely to be most affected by this project/task? If it’s the ‘boss’ or worse still the ‘big boss’, we are more likely to prioritise it and this isn’t always right, as often the boss is not aware of the various other priorities we have.
What we know about other people’s priorities reframes our own. This can become a problem and can lead to groupthink, where a collection of like-minded individuals determines the priorities on behalf of another much more diverse group. It is easy to gain consensus when people are from a similar background and share experience and viewpoints. However, it is rarely successful…well unless designing for a very niche, closed group. Diversity is what creates valuable opportunities and drives adaption and evolution.
This social perception at an individual level and this groupthink can also lead to misaligned priorities at an organisational level and board misalignment on strategic objectives. This materialises in a laundry list of initiatives, all of which are high priority or indeed a variation of high, very high, extreme, must do (in other words the haystack). When you need four different levels of high priority, it's perhaps an indication that you aren’t prioritising effectively. For organisations, this kind of misalignment can have various symptoms including change fatigue and change resistance, productivity decline, lower resilience, and overall lower levels of wellbeing.
These symptoms often go untreated, leading to disillusionment, disengagement and eventually absenteeism and attrition. Often it is difficult to link the symptom back to the root cause, as often the symptoms are mistaken for the cause or indeed create a vicious cycle of cause and effect. For example, attrition is high due to increased workloads, workloads are high due to increased attrition and an inability to recruit, recruitment is hampered by staff who are overworked and are unlikely to outwardly recommend the organisation and so the cycle continues.
Change Portfolios and Strategy
From a change perspective, we often see organisations with ambitious change portfolios (and can I just say there is nothing wrong with ambition!). However, the organisations who realise their ambitions are those who work to a core vision and strategy. This is where each member of the board knows how their contribution impacts that strategy and where change initiatives arise from the need to do something differently to realise that strategy, not an individual’s desire to achieve a personal goal (‘pet project’) or a historic deliverable which if truly assessed would no longer contribute to that strategy. Also, the board stay true to their vision. That’s not to say that it cannot change (as visions often do) but that there is real challenge to initiatives which just don’t move the needle or importantly, no longer move the needle.
So, what can we do differently? We can start with three simple steps:
1. Build in time to stop, think, and review our priorities against our objectives/strategy;
2. Be ruthless, particularly with the ‘pet projects’;
3. Focus on the things that can and will move the needle.
After all, John Maeda said: “People who can focus, get things done. People who can prioritise, get the right things done.”
Marbral Advisory provides consultancy services to help companies achieve their business goals, unlock significant gains and meet their full potential. Services include strategic advisory, change management, project management, training, and engagement programmes. To find out more, contact the team: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their website: www.marbraladvisory.com
i /  https://www.ucdavis.edu/news/memory-replay-prioritizes-high-reward-memories