How to prioritise - solve important problems only

How to prioritise - solve important problems only

I remember reviewing some objectives in a company once for the exec of a central services team – you know – a team that supports other teams in the business.

One of the objectives was to meet every single Vice President in the company and build a relationship with them. I asked the execs what problem they were trying to solve by asking their Team Leads to meet the VPs (of which there were about 150!).

They said it was to “sell the service” and “understand demand”. But this was a part of the business that already had more demand than they could shake a stick at.

I suggested that this wasn’t the real problem and that if the Team Leads spent their days meeting the VPs they wouldn’t be doing anything else. Is this what they wanted? Team leads spending a couple of months to sell a service that was already over-subscribed?

After all, if the Team Leads spent their time meeting over 150 VPs, then nothing else would get done.

They agreed it sounded silly in hindsight.

Prioritise Work

So, I asked them to lift themselves up a level and ask what problem VPs knowing about the service would solve.

And they said “so we can prioritise our work”.

And this was the real problem to be solved. How to prioritise.

Meeting VPs was a potential solution to this problem and as such it had become a key indicator, a result, an outcome, something easy to measure and write down.

After some brainstorming they came up with several new ways to prioritise around the problem. Approaches that didn’t rely on people spending months meeting other people to sell something that was already in hot demand.

At work we should always be trying to discover what problem we’re trying to solve. And then to keep going up or down the problem and information stack, until you hit the root cause. And then ask a couple of other powerful questions:

  • Now we understand the problem, is it really a problem that’s worth solving? (i.e. should we give up something else to address this?)
  • And how do we know it’s a problem? (i.e. show me the data)
  • And how will we know when we’ve solved it? (i.e. show me how you’ll measure success).

I find most problems in business aren’t worth solving or we cannot clearly articulate why it’s a problem, or it’s less important than others, or more importantly, it’s not a problem stopping us from achieving our goals.

Yet, unless we ask critical questions we may end up doing plenty of work that doesn’t solve the right problems. We may prioritise something less important simply because we’ve not stopped to think things through.

Every day in our workplaces there are people using energy and attention to prioritise and solve the wrong problems, or even worse, doing work that has no obvious tangible benefit to the business.

I recommend starting with the simple idea of this (and it works in our own lives to):

If I do THIS work, I can’t do THAT work. Is that what I want to focus on?