Planning, Executing, Measuring, Being Agile…the list can be lengthy for all of the things you think about when doing strategic planning. But what about the simple act of deciding what's most important, what happens first and what will be chosen to be done later? Prioritizing your strategic objectives is a critical step that many organizations forget to think about when they put together their plans and goals.
There are a variety of ways to do this from the more mercurial methods (choosing the objective the boss most invested in) to the more democratic (having everyone vote, prioritizing the top vote-getters) and organizations tend to choose based on their culture.
The first thing to remember when you prioritize your strategic initiatives is there will be things that don’t make the top of the list. That doesn't mean they are not important. It does mean there are other initiatives that take a higher priority. It also doesn't mean they will never get done. It might mean they get done later. It might mean they can only be completed after something else gets done. It might mean resources have to be freed up for these initiatives to be completed. Whatever the reason, don’t ‘mourn’ those strategies in which you are invested and that don’t win the First Priority Contest. They might be farther out in your timeline but it doesn’t mean they go away. Keep in mind there are also times when these priorities will change or fall off the radar. Strategic plans should be dynamic so they can move and change with both the organization and the environment. .
So… that leaves us with how to prioritize your strategic initiatives?
It’s pretty simple. Ask yourself is it…
- Directly relevant? - Is it directly aligned with one or more of your critical success factors?
- A major initiative on which other initiatives are dependent?
- Low Hanging Fruit? - Is it fast/easy/resource cheap to execute?
This is the ‘broad influence’ concept. Strategies that have direct relationships to a multiple number of critical success factors (CSF) for your organization, should be at the top level priority list. What are CSFs? The broad, overarching things your organization has to get right to be successful. Examples of these could be something like “Customer-Centered Service”, “Quality In Every Shipment” or “Technological Leadership”. When strategies cut across more than one of your critical success factors, their impact brings the organization closer to its broad goals and become directly relevant. Frequently these strategies involve more teams and people within the organization which also makes them a strong, unifying force for the organization. . .
“Have to Do This Before We Can Do This”
Sometimes there are strategies that have “parent-child” relationships. That is one will be responsible for bringing about another, or one will have to be done before another can start. This direct relationship means the top level strategy, if not done, can serve as a bottleneck for a variety of other initiatives that are dependent upon its completion. When a fair amount of strategic initiatives can’t get off the ground without a precursor, the initial strategy becomes a necessary priority.
These are the strategies that might be partially done and all they need is an extra push to complete or are relatively quick and easy to accomplish. Once done, these strategies give the teams responsible a sense of preliminary accomplishment and pave the way for larger initiatives to be completed. Frequently low-hanging fruit does not require excessive amounts of resources and is something the organization can do with minimal disruption or minimal participation from many people. These initiatives also have the added benefit of giving the organization something to celebrate in the short term. A side effect with really positive benefits for the team.
One or More
Some strategic priorities will fit into one or more of these three categories. When that happens, those priorities will likely take precedence over many others as they have a broader reach. However, in general most priorities will fit into one of these three baskets. One of the most important things you can do in deciding which things will be your priorities should be to select them independent of biases, personal agendas, power struggles and pet projects. This is a hard bar to clear as these are human tendencies and humans write strategic plans. However, asking the key questions of relevance, dependence and ease can be a good start to ferreting out individual preferences and wish lists.
Prioritization Is Best Done…
…during the planning process. If those who are part of the planning aren’t part of the process when prioritization takes place, ownership and engagement can suffer. This doesn’t mean everyone gets exactly what they want. Prioritizing – applying the guidelines above for choosing to do certain strategic objectives first – helps the planning participants come to a consensus and understand the criteria by which certain initiatives are selected over others. This kind of litmus test lets everyone know there is a procedure and a process by which every initiative gets judged. And all are subject to the same standards.
Remember that plans are best when they are agile and adaptable. Sometimes goals will shift. Oftentimes, factors outside of the organization’s control, like the competitive or economic landscape, will force the organization into a new direction. When that happens, priorities are bound to shift. The best reaction to a new direction is to apply the same rules for prioritization as you did with the initial plan. Applying a dispassionate set of guidelines is not only best for the organization, it’s best for the true engagement of the teams that will carry out your plan.