17: The Law of Priorities

Setting priorities is critical to effective leadership. There are many things that come to a leader's attention - many of which are shoved at him by his followers and peers - that distract him from doing the things that are most important and impactful. Many leaders fall prey to this, and become so involved in things that don't matter that they do not devote time to the things that matter most. Sorting things out before taking action is critical to taking the action that will have an impact.

Personal Experience: Relocation Decision

The author speaks to his own decision to move from San Diego to Atlanta. San Diego is a great place to live, with mild weather year-round, mountains and beach within driving distances, a thriving cultural scene, and a lot of great amenities. However, his profession as a speaker requires a great deal of travel, and the San Diego airport is not a major hub: reviewing his activities over the course of a year, he found that he had lost almost a full month just in the additional travel time needed to change flights.

This caused him to reprioritize, simply moving to a city where he could get direct flights would save significant time and boost productivity. And so, he considered the various airports that had major hubs, and chose Atlanta as his new base, a decent location that isn't quite as nice as southern California, but that more importantly gives him the ability to get to 80% of the locations he regularly travels via a two-hour flight.

Principles of Prioritization

The author discusses two principles that are helpful in determining how tasks should be prioritized.

The first is the Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, which maintains that you don't have to do everything. If you prioritize correctly, you will find that 20% of your activities generate 80% of your results - though the trick is determining which activities are among that critical 20%.

To that end, the author presents three "R" principles of prioritization:

  1. Requirements. Some things absolutely must be done, and must be handled by the leader himself. There's no avoiding these things.
  2. Return. Consider the outcome of an action - what will the result be if you do something, versus what would the result be if you did not do it. Choose those tasks that have the greatest impact.
  3. Responsibility. For other activities, consider whether you have the skills to do them well. If someone else can do them better, delegate them. Even if someone can do a task only 80% as well as you could, delegate it.

(EN: This seems a bit vague and facile, but my sense is it's necessarily so. It would be difficult to describe how the various tasks can be assessed because of the variables involved, and any clear and precise answer would be a generalization that is not widely applicable. For example, many firms use money, in the form of ROI, to determine which projects are undertaken - which deprioritizes some very important work that doesn't have an immediate monetary return but are nonetheless critical to long-term success in favor of less important work that has a short-term financial benefit.)

The author shares a personal method for setting priorities: he has developed an ordered list of the things he feels are important (giving leadership, communicating ideas, providing solutions, making connections, etc.) and assesses how any given activity contributes to or detracts from these priorities. The things that have the greatest impact on the most important items are to be considered priorities.

The Importance of Priorities

When you have a goal in mind, there are reasons that goal is important to accomplish - and these reasons stem from your priorities. It is not sufficient to embark on an enterprise with a vague sense that there will be a good result.

The author returns again to Admunson, who led his team to the South Pole. His priorities included not only getting there, but getting back as well, and bringing his team safely home. His competitor, Scott, had only a vague sense of his desire to get there - and did so. However, he didn't prioritize getting himself and his men back alive - and so he didn't.

The same is true in other fields: the general who seeks victory, the executive who seeks profitability, the pastor who seeks to increase his flock, etc. are all people with objectives who must also consider other priorities to result in a success that is not a pyrrhic victory.

Successful leaders understand the importance of priorities, and recognize that while they need to accomplish specific goals, they should never lose sight of that which is important.

Purpose in Everything, Purpose for Everyone

The author seems to go on a sidetrack about the "hurry up and wait" pattern that emerges in poorly managed organization: people are commanded to do a rush job of something, then stand around waiting for their next order. A good manager realizes that this is wasted time, and a creator or morale problems.

Back to sports again: he mentions a championship coach (John Wooden at UCLA) who carefully planned team practices, to orchestrate every moment of practice and ensure that players were at all times engaged - and engaged in an activity that would strengthen their performance on the court.

It's said that he would spend more time planning a practice session than the session itself took. He planned out every activity for the session, mindful of what each player was doing at any given time, and documented his plan thoroughly, carrying note cards to ensure his plans were executed.

With that in mind, he once claimed that if you asked him what a specific player was doing at a given time on a given date, even years ago, he could look to his notes and tell you exactly what it was. And given his meticulous nature, it's very likely he could.

The result of this meticulous planning was a phenomenal career: in forty years, he had only one losing season (his first), led his team to four undefeated seasons and a record-setting ten championship games.

Back to the topic, this shows a man who has his priorities straight. He didn't merely want to win games, nor did he focus solely on drilling the first-string players while the others watched and waited. Instead, he maximized the value of practice by ensuring every player on the team benefitted from it.

Refocusing on a Worldwide Scale

Another narrative about Jack Welch: on taking over at General Electric, the firm was one of the strongest on the market, but he believed it could be made better. The firm was already a conglomerate, with hundreds of businesses and product lines.

Welch's approach was to consider each product line by a single criterion: is it now or can it become the number one or number two in its product category? He identified 348 products that could not, and either closed or divested them, then used the proceeds from sale or salvage to strengthen the ones that could.

As a result of this reprioritization, the company's performance increased even further: the stock was $14 per share when he took over, and has split four times and currently trades at $80 per share (one $14 share would be worth $1,280 today).

It is commonly said about Welch is that he never mistook activity for accomplishment - and the key to his success was in sorting out and focusing on what really matters and focusing on the few thins that bring the highest reward.