When is the last time that you felt like things were comfortably status quo? Changing business strategies, morphing project parameters, and turnover that leaves you short-staffed are more the rule than the exception these days. So how do you ensure your team stays focused in an environment of ever-changing priorities? Clear communication with your team and proactive change leadership are key to keeping your teams engaged and on track. Here are three strategies you should employ on a regular basis.
Strategy 1: Talk About Priorities Regularly
Setting priorities doesn’t come naturally to everyone. The good news is that it’s a skill that can be learned relatively easily. Start by making it a part of your ongoing conversations with your teams. Yes, work with them regularly, in a structured way, to help them establish and revise priorities. For more on that, Derek Lidow outlines “A Better Way To Set Strategic Priorities” in this Harvard Business Review article. But it’s also important to engage the leaders who report to you in general, ongoing conversations about their priorities. It helps them become more fluent in the language of managing priorities and it conveys the importance you place on that fluency. And it helps you to gauge how closely their priorities are in step with yours and the organization, and where their prioritization skills need to be improved.
A lot of leaders struggle with how to engage in everyday conversations with their direct reports about priorities. Here are some questions to start the conversation:
- How do you differentiate between what’s urgent and what’s important?
- Of all the things on your team’s plate, what adds the most value to the organization?
- Are you familiar with the idea that “perfect is the enemy of progress?”
Strategy 2: Get Ahead of Changes in the Workplace
When teams get hit with unanticipated changes, it can feel like “here we go again… another fire-drill.” Well, preventing fires is a lot more effective than putting them out, especially when they seem to crop up on regular basis. Not only is it a more efficient approach, but it keeps the level of frustration down when people don’t feel blindsided.
As soon as you anticipate changes that will affect your part of the organization, reach out to your direct reports (or your leadership team?). Apprise them of what you know and ask them questions. You want them thinking about this… really engaging in the challenges ahead. The earlier they’re involved, the better their responses will be. And they’re also likely to provide food for thought that will help you manage the change upward.
Consider these conversation starters to help make the inevitable transition happen more smoothly:
- What obstacles do you anticipate with the upcoming change?
- What knowledge and skills do you think will need to be shored up to make this change work?
- Which of your team’s current priorities can take a backseat while we’re transitioning?
Strategy 3: Teach Your Team to Shift Gears On Their Own
Ideally, you want your teams to be able to shift their priorities effectively with only the lightest of steering on your part. That leaves you more time to focus on strategic issues. The challenge? Too many managers have been taught by their organization and past bosses to take direction on prioritization.
If you’ve been leveraging the first two techniques, this third one will be easier. Some things to keep in mind:
- First, make sure they’re well-acquainted with your organization’s business strategy and goals. They provide a framework for them to understand what their priorities should be.
- Second, in the simplest terms, what are your highest-level priorities? “Client problem resolution will always be my number one concern.”
- Third, what are your expectations on the latitude they have for changing priorities and how to communicate with you about them?
If you want them to better manage their own priorities, never, ever tell your direct reports what you want right away. Encourage them to present you with their ideas first. Probe for why they’re thinking the way they do. Test their assumptions. Here are some effective conversation starters for setting parameters and promoting self-reliance:
- Let’s talk about our organization’s goals and how they should be reflected in our department’s priorities. How do you see them aligning?
- If you were in my shoes, what would be your biggest priority? Why? How will you reflect that in your priorities over the next quarter?
- On a regular basis, you’re more than capable of managing your team’s priorities. Here’s what I want you to do any time you’re on track to miss your monthly goals…
Once upon a time, managing priorities was a standard, quarterly process. Now shifts happen too often and too quickly for such a static approach. In my Harvard Business Review online article 5 Behaviors of Leaders Who Embrace Change I talk about how critical it is for every leader to integrate change leadership into the very fabric of who they are and what they do on a daily basis. An essential part of that is guiding your team leaders’ ability to re-prioritize.