Get Your Priorities Straight

Wondering whether your organization is clear about its priorities? Bela has some advice on where to start.

Does your organization really know its priorities? Are they embedded in the daily decisions and actions of your team? How do you know?

It is one thing to discuss them in the context of strategic planning. But acting upon them is an entirely different matter. Unfortunately, too many strategic planning efforts stop short of weaving their priorities into the fabric of their operations.

Strategic planning is a process to discover, define, and articulate the focus of your organization. Most organizations are able to execute this process as part of periodic strategic planning. The formal process to define the focus of a mission-driven organization is typically undertaken by the board, executive leadership, and a collection of key operational staff leaders. If all goes well, these participants will produce a document that clearly states the organization’s reason for being, the unique benefits and value it provides to a well-defined set of stakeholders, and how the organization will pursue specific activities to further its effectiveness and impact.

But this milestone (a documented plan), which typically concludes the strategic planning process, is really only the first step of the strategic journey. More challenging and more important steps follow. And unless the organization’s leaders make a concerted effort to communicate and embed the strategic focus and priorities into the depths of the operating organization, there is a real risk that the strategic journey fails to take another step forward.

We have some thoughts on how to make sure your organization continues to step forward on its strategic journey once strategic planning is done.

Define Strategic Focus and Priorities. First, we should understand the important difference between strategic focus and strategic priorities.  These concepts are closely related but are critically different. Strategic focus is typically elucidated in a strategic plan, and defines boundaries around the activities the organization will pursue: We will serve these target stakeholders with these programs and services delivering these outcomes leveraging these valuable resources. Describing the organization’s strategic focus in this way should send very clear signals to stakeholders about the intent and direction for the foreseeable future. This is strategic focus.

But strategic focus needs more depth to translate it into operating activities. This is where strategic priorities come into play. Priorities define the essential activities, investments, and outcomes that guide operations and enable the organization to sharpen its focus. Priorities address a variety of dimensions, including specific target stakeholder groups, operating capabilities, uses of operating and capital funds, and specific activities and outcomes.

Priorities can also be defined in the negative. An organization can also define the activities it will not pursue to further its focus. For example, affordable housing organizations typically rely on external partners to provide tenant services (e.g., operating a day care center) to allow them to focus fully on its housing assets.

Prioritize Your Priorities. A common complaint voiced among operating staff of mission-driven organizations is that their organization “tries to be all things to all people.” This situation is not resolved by simply defining strategic focus during strategic planning. In fact, even defining the operating priorities of the organization may not alleviate this concern if the priorities are too numerous relative to the budget.

If often not enough to simply define the priorities. Leaders either need to keep the priorities list mercifully short, or rank order them according to some type of reasonable rubric. There are a variety of techniques for ranking strategic priorities, most of which involve scoring them against a set of criteria. Large leadership stakeholder groups (e.g., universities with faculty governance, academic professional associations) can use collaborative methods like the Analytic Hierarchy Process deployed in software packages from Decision Lens, Transparent Choice, or Expert Choice. Smaller groups can often get by with spreadsheet-based solutions.

There is no “correct” number of priorities. Research done by McKinsey & Company suggests that five or fewer per unit may be optimal. Operating staff are quick to realize when a stated priority is not attainable relative to available resources, so any truly prioritized list will be feasible in the eyes of those charged with implementation.

Justify Your Priorities. In communicating your priorities, use a few sentences or a short paragraph to summarize priorities and provide strategic justification. Describe the intent, scale and scope of the impact in key areas for target stakeholders. Describe how an operating investment creates a new key capability or fills a critical gap in capabilities. If you are prioritizing cost reductions, explain how cost savings will help the organization achieve financial health or fund new programs.

Describe How it Works. Use action verbs to describe how the priority will be implemented or achieved. Provide examples of initiatives that can help achieve the priority objective. Describe steps already taken or committed to achieve the priority, and review past progress toward the objective.

Establish concrete targets. Establish numerical measures of how progress will be measured on an ongoing, regular basis. Make priorities tangible by committing to concrete targets to gauge progress. Create a scorecard that contains these measures, and communicate updates to recognize and celebrate progress toward objectives that have a clear finish line.

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