Common sense, numerous management books and optimisation theory all suggest the best organisations prioritise what is important, focus on doing it well, and succeed as a result. However, the examples of organisations who actually do this are pretty rare -- not because management don't buy into this at a rational level or lack the technical capability, but because they fail to address the emotional barriers to prioritisation. This can be frustrating for all involved. Could and should we be using techniques from psychology to prioritise successfully?
The benefits of focusing on a few things and doing them well, rather than trying to do too many things at the same time, feel obvious. Analytical techniques for prioritisation and rationalisation are not rocket science. Yet, it appears many organisations fail to prioritise effectively -- so much so that companies that succeed are hailed as exemplars (see, for example, http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/04/the_one_thing_ceos_need_to_lea.html?awid=8982920440538475581-3271).
To illustrate, my organisation has gone through a down-sizing recently and while we have tried our best to right-size the work (using above mentioned techniques), staff report feeling overwhelmed and overworked. They crave for stability and top-down clarity on what not to do while management crave for staff to act as responsible adults and make their own choices about what is important to deliver the agreed objectives. This is not a positive dynamic and does not reflect well on our collective leadership capability (see for example http://www.inc.com/geoffrey-james/8-core-beliefs-of-extraordinary-bosses.html).
In investigating the root causes for this, a huge number of issues have cropped up, ranging from difficulty of measuring output and success at the level of individuals and teams, speed of change in external challenges and demands, fear of failure (partly justified by past experiences, partly not), low risk appetite and some evading of accountability, patchy quality of dialogue between managers and staff, and so on. I could write several pages on this (and in fact, have done), but the two fundamental conclusions I have drawn are:
- This is not anyone’s fault: it is an emergent property of the organisation and most individuals are doing their best but powerless to change the collective dynamics – so clearly a job for leadership!
- There are strong underlying emotional reasons why people find prioritisation hard – rationality is not enough (see, for example, http://hbr.org/product/the-real-reason-people-won-t-change/an/R0110E-PDF-ENG)
Let me elaborate on the latter. People get real satisfaction from doing a good job – but prioritisation often means settling for “good enough”. People want to feel that what they are doing is important – but prioritisation often requires us to move on to something else. Does this mean what I did before wasn’t important – and that I, as a person, am unimportant? People like to feel needed and wanted – suddenly having time can feel very threatening, an almost existential angst. And most of us are terrible at saying “no” in a constructive way.
So what to do about this? I have a few ideas that I would like to test. We could support people in the “grieving process” that appears necessary for letting go and prioritising the really important. We could teach people resilience so their sense of self is not tied up with what they did yesterday or the day before – even if it is tied up with the process of work and its fruits today and in the future. We could disproportionately praise people who actively did not do something for their courage and focus. And we could up-skill everyone’s negotiation skills so that saying “no” stops feeling career-limiting.