Killing High-Performance Teams, Part Two (AKA the priority problem)

In my last blog post, I tackled the effect that a lack of clarity has on high-performing teaming. The short summary of it is this: take away clear goals and clear roles and you will only get broken processes, poor performance, and a ton of unnecessary stress.

In this follow-up to that post, I want to spend a little bit of time on the (lack of) clarity problem’s partner in crime: the priority problem.

GoalI see this issue a lot. Leadership spews shouts communicates a goal. Let’s assume that it’s a legitimate goal (Note: this is a HUGE assumption, because most often what is communicated is NOT a goal at all – it’s usually just a metric that is supposed to be attached to a goal. Hello, sales “target.”). The goal is then widely proclaimed and possibly even put on a dashboard and a score card and a poster and an email and… You get the point. EVERYBODY knows the goal. Which if that were the only condition, then fine. My rant would be over.

BUT then, something interesting happens. ANOTHER goal is added to the dashboard/score card/email/etc. It may be complimentary to the original goal. It may not be. But it is equally important. And it is equally proclaimed – far and wide.

PrioritiesThen – you guessed it – another goal is added to the first two. Then another. And another. And another. Until there is no clear number one priority. In fact, the idea of a single priority that trumps all other priorities is completely lost. And God forbid we actually get a clear sense of the order of priority for the remaining goals. Leaders simply say, “It’s all a priority.” At which point, nothing is a priority.

Something tells me that you know exactly what I am talking about.

When this happens, there are usually one (or more) of the following causes.

The first likely cause is: You have a weak business. What I mean by his is that the actual health of your business is weak/soft. Healthy businesses – at the minimum – have good innovation, revenue, financial stewardship, legal compliance, and consistent operations. If any of these are weak, people will start trying to fix them. I specifically chose the term “people” instead of leadership because literally ANYONE will have an opinion on what needs to be done and will inject their (usually well-intentioned) thinking into goals that will “fix” the problem. Not only does this create unnecessary complexity and potential conflict (e.g. Are my revenue goals less important than my legal goals?), you get even more chaos (the bad kind) when people have not even properly defined the gap. For example, don’t fix revenue issues when a lack of innovation is the root cause. The resulting mess of competing priorities simply confuses and de-motivates your people.


Weak 1The second likely cause
is: You have weak leadership. Of course, this is a bit of “the chicken and the egg” to me. As in which comes first, weak leaders or weak business? Regardless, you will know you have weak leaders when they do things like:

  • Avoid providing clarity when asked
  • Inject extra goals to feed his/her ego
  • Get confused by all of the goals and couldn’t prioritize their way out of a small bag
  • Play politics over roles and processes instead of helping drive the right goals

If this describes your current state, I am very sorry for you. You have two good options. Change leaders or change leaders. In other words, get leadership behaviors to change or get rid of those leaders if they won’t change. The impact of weak leaders on what gets prioritized (or de-prioritized) is massive. ‘Nuff said.

And the third likely cause is: You have a weak strategy. If the strategy is (a) not addressing the gaps in your business health and/or (b) not addressing gaps in your leadership, it is weak. It is designed to look good on paper. And nothing else. It will not execute. It will only generate lots of new, competing goals that people will have to commit to in order to make sure that the real work of keeping the business afloat is done. In this scenario, even healthy attempts to drive the right priorities will get swallowed up in fatigue as people exhaust themselves to do everything. Again, no bueno.

In summary, let me put it to you this way: If you have the authority to set priorities, you have the obligation to do it well. Make sure that your business health, leadership team, and strategy are strong enough to drive clear priorities. It’s a simple concept that has dramatic implications. And if you have the desire be even more effective, drive some clarity as well.

I mua. Onward and upward.

by Tim Ohai

This entry was posted in Leadership, Teaming and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Killing High-Performance Teams, Part Two (AKA the priority problem)

  1. Clive Price says:

    Very true Tim.
    To obfuscate the ‘Priority Problem’ further, if the company has a Mother Company then it’s 10 x worse as they load their priorities. I’m dealing with an organisation here, where nothing happens because there are so many so called priorities. As I see it, my job is to identify a core of competent people who will decide the critical few priories and then (dictate) lead the implementation.
    All the Best,
    Clive Price

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