“The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” – Michael Porter

“I don’t have enough time in a day to work on the most important things!” I regularly hear CEOs complain. We all have a tendency to jump on the most urgent problems – because they are urgent and also because, let’s face it: we are addicted to fixing problems.

Why priorities matter – pebbles vs. rocks

The issue is: when we focus on fighting fires we don’t work on what really helps move our business forward. A year quickly goes by and we realize that we have missed some of our goals.

A key to breaking this vicious circle is to agree on 3 to 5 quarterly priorities with your leadership team. The key question is: which ones have the biggest impact on your company in order to reach your 1-year goal and move towards your 3-year goals? There are hundreds of things that you need or want to do to move your company forward. The key is to prioritize and to find the smaller number of possible activities that will make the biggest difference.

This short video with Stephen Covey is about picking what is important first. If you focus on the pebbles first (i.e. the daily fires), you will never make true progress towards your goals. It is only by putting the rocks in first, your 3-5 strategic priorities, that you can build sustainable, profitable growth. Debating annual or quarterly priorities is the opportunity for your leadership team to agree on what is important (and what your team should focus on) vs. what is urgent. By building an execution plan around your priorities and committing time to them, you can regain control over your calendar – instead of letting your inbox control your time.

How to set priorities you can commit to

Setting priorities is not very hard. Setting priorities in a way that you will follow through on them and to which you can hold people accountable, without shifting focus in the middle of the quarter, is the hard part.  Here are tips to set you up for success when defining your quarterly priorities:

  • Clearly define each priority:
    • What does success look like? Does each priority have a clearly defined, tangible result?
    • Does each priority have KPIs clearly defined? “Improve the client onboarding process” is vague; a more helpful priority may be: “Reduce onboarding time by X and increase satisfaction of new clients by Y through an improved onboarding process”: it gives a clear direction on what you want to accomplish and enables you to track progress as you go.
    • Does each priority have one (and only one) person accountable? This person doesn’t need to do all the work of course. Their role is to engage in disciplined planning, hold the team to high expectations, anticipate issues and course-correct when needed, and maintain transparent communication.
  • Pick the right timeframe (e.g. 90 days). One year is often too long to keep people focused and accountable – and within 6 months the world will change, prompting you to shift priorities. While annual priorities (or “themes”) are important, the right timeframe to hold your team accountable is often a shorter period.
  • Make your priorities results-focused, not task-focused (e.g. “Hire 85% A-players” instead of “Set up a new recruiting process”). This helps you track progress more effectively and enables you to adjust your approach as you go in order to reach your goal.
  • Develop a 13-week plan for each quarterly priority, with a clear activity/result for every week. You want your priorities to set your calendar, and not your calendar to set your priorities. Without clearly defined weekly plan, your team will soon be absorbed by daily fires – and will procrastinate on your top priorities. A weekly plan, on the other hand, enables you to track progress: it makes it much easier to hold your team accountable during your weekly meetings and greatly increases the chances of accomplishing the priority by the end of the quarter.

Prioritization is about saying no

Prioritization is also about deciding which alluring priorities not to pursue and what to stop doing, so that you can dedicate the necessary time to the most important priorities of your company. As Michael Porter put it: “Strategy is choice. Strategy means saying no to some things.”

Learn to say No when an opportunity comes along during the year. The key question is: “If we say Yes to this new opportunity, what are we saying No to?”