‘Prioritize’ is a word that I particularly dislike because it is overused and misused in a terrible way. I have seen many people making sophisticated priority lists, grounded in a sound and elaborate process to then kill the rigour at the last minute by choosing the actions that seem more amenable or, shall we say, that we can control. Clean and simple, but not terribly rigorous.
The logic of focusing on the things that one can control is inescapable. But there is no logic in sweeping the things that one cannot control, and that may be the real core of the problem, under the carpet. Just because I, as leader, can control my organization chart, play musical chairs, and move people around, does not mean that reorganizing is an automatic priority.
‘Prioritize’ as a term, has two meanings: (1) arrange or do something in order of priority and (2) declare something to be more important than another. People follow more or less both, but, as a client put it recently, we seem to always prioritize in a way that everything becomes No 1! Besides the funny comment, there is enormous truth here. For something to become No 1, something else will have to become 2 or 3. We sometimes seem to have a few number 1’s competing with each other.
In Decision Analysis, there is a principle called ‘preference independence’. It means that if you have A, B, and C as options, you can’t chose one such as ‘B with a little bit of C’. If you really like ‘B with a little bit of C’, this is your D option! In our cruder, day-to-day prioritization, when we don’t use a decision analysis tool other than our brains, we need to learn the ‘preference independence’ principle as well. We need to be better at refining the options before rushing to priorities.
And we need to apply some principles of critical thinking as well, so that, particularly in a group situation, we don’t end up with the classical basket of ‘things that we can’t control’ without actually challenging ourselves on the truth of that category. Are these really things that we definitely cannot control? You will be surprised how the discipline of the questioning can eventually decrease the size of that basket.
In my experience, managers consistently and grossly underestimate the power they have to implement things. That is why the standard prioritization process, as generally used, is poorer than it should be. The easy ‘lets pick up one or two’ has become a default outcome of many priority exercises. Often those ‘one or two’ were already (and suspiciously) the front runners before the priority setting process. ‘Let’s prioritize’ and ‘Let’s choose the usual suspects’ are two different things.