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Mike Figliuolo


How to Prioritize Your Team’s Work and Improve Focus

It’s easy for your team to get sidetracked if your strategy has a lot of moving parts

Published: Monday, April 12, 2021 - 11:02

A consistent and regularly scheduled prioritization process helps eliminate distractions and can focus your efforts on the most meaningful projects. Some processes are formal, while others are simply frequent conversations about priorities. Choose a process that’s appropriate for the size of your organization.

I’ve worked for two very different organizations. One was large, and one was a small business unit. In the large one, we had a very formal prioritization process. All departments were involved, and you had to have a rigorous business case to get your idea on the list. In the small business unit, it was an informal process. We achieved prioritization by allocating budget to different budget owners. We then gave them discretion to choose their own priorities.

In the large organization it was rigorous, but sometimes we lacked agility. The process kept us focused, but at the cost of innovating every once in a while. In the small organization the process enabled a lot of distractions to happen. People pursued some pet projects. Pet projects and distractions should not be worked on if they haven’t been prioritized. They had a huge impact.

In the small business unit I was in, we got a lot of small things done, but a lot of times they were disjointed, they lacked impact, and some of them weren’t even on strategy. Build a prioritization process that is appropriate for the size and complexity of your organization, and make sure that process is in charge of allocating resources accordingly.

Embedding prioritization

Prioritization processes work great for larger projects that require resource allocation. They don’t necessarily change behaviors related to more day-to-day activities. Embedding a prioritization mindset in your team will help everyone focus on the most meaningful work. When you talk about projects, refer back to the prioritization criteria so people know how you make decisions and that you expect them to do the same.

I had a great boss at one point who would meet with me every week to ask me what I was working on. If he saw I was working on something that was off strategy, he’d ask for justification. He’d say, “Mike, how does this tie to the strategy?” He forced me to think through how the work I was doing tied to the overall strategy. If the work didn’t, he asked what I thought we should do about the project. Usually, I decided to kill it. I then modeled that behavior for my team. Prioritization became a way of life for us.

Ask people on your team what they’re working on. Have them explain how that work ties to the overall strategy. Ask them to make choices based on the strategy vs. just telling them, “No, stop that project.” When they come up with the rationale on their own, they’re much more likely to stop doing nonstrategic work and focus on the things that matter the most.

Stopping off-track work

When you come across work that isn’t high priority or is a distraction, it’s important to stop it quickly. Before stopping that work, though, understand why people are working on it and why they thought it should be a focus. There may be a good reason they’re pursuing that project. It could be related to safety, regulations, or company policy. If there’s not a strong reason for the work, and it’s clear that it’s a distraction, stop it immediately. Explain your rationale and refocus efforts on high-priority items that require additional resources.

I worked with one CEO who was excited about making an acquisition. He had a lot of activity going on. He had people looking at the market and evaluating the target company. He was spinning up a lot of work. We went through a strategic planning session, and he realized this work was off strategy. It was a distraction. He immediately stopped all work on it. That sent a strong message to the organization that it’s OK to stop work in progress once you realize it’s off strategy.

When you stop off-track work, be sure to replace it with something more meaningful. You don’t want that individual feeling discouraged or unimportant because you stopped their project. Let them know, “Hey, it’s about the project, it’s not about you. And by the way, now that you’re free, I want you to go work on this really high-priority strategic project.” Stopping off-track work is a key to achieving focus for your organization.

First published March 24, 2021, on the thoughtLEADERS blog.


About The Author

Mike Figliuolo’s picture

Mike Figliuolo

Mike Figliuolo is the author of The Elegant Pitch and One Piece of Paper. He's the co-author of Lead Inside the Box. He's also the managing director of thoughtLEADERS, LLC—a leadership development training firm. He regularly writes about leadership on the thoughtLEADERS Blog.