Prioritisation is key to getting everything that matters done

80:20 Rule

Activity Always Expands

Many people struggle with an overwhelming workload because there is a lack of prioritisation of work at all levels; everything becomes “top priority” of the week. Strong prioritisation tackles the causes (workload) instead of ineffective traditional strategies that fight the symptoms (time management, training, staff performance management, targets).

“Ok, it’s Monday lunchtime. What’s this week’s crisis then?”

An environment beset with constant firefighting can have many causes, including under-resourcing. But it is amazing how often this situation is internally generated – through a basic lack of structured and sensible prioritisation.

Does everything you do really need to be done?

Does what you do and the way that you do it make sense?

Isn’t it time someone did something about it?

What can go wrong?

Let’s first look the effects of a dysfunctional or absent prioritisation regime. Then we’ll consider what to do about it.


Productivity Dramatically Falls
There’s so much change, we struggle to get anything done. Every day is a chaotic fight to try to get something finished before the next crisis hits

Quality Suffers
We don’t have time to do anything properly any more, we just have to do something. It is one band-aid after another. There’s no time to check work

Morale Destroyed
People are really hurting, the workload and amount of change is getting everyone down and sickness absence is rising

Reputational Damage
We’re becoming notorious but not for good reasons. It’s making it hard to attract good staff. Customers are up in arms about poor service delivery


Priorities are unclear and ever-shifting. There is a constant stream of demands for new things that “must be done”. Fire-fighting, context-switching and long lists of tasks “in progress” are the norm.

Taking a completely reactive approach is not prioritising – it is an absence of any prioritisation.

This is hugely expensive on the ground because it destroys productivity as people are sucked into constant firefighting and can never focus. The result is huge amounts of activity but very little work of real value gets done.

Pretty quickly quality and morale fall dramatically and reputation suffers, risking the long-term future of the business.

What can be done?

It doesn’t have to be like this. It is perfectly possible to follow an alternative pattern in your organisation that leads to a far better outcome. Let’s look together at what you could do instead and the positive consequences that will follow.

What might a different way look like?


Activity Falls, Value Delivery Rises
Now we’re not lurching from one crisis to another, there’s so much more time to focus and get things done

Lower Workload
Having a few clear priorities really helps to reduce the workload – now it is easy to tell what really matters, what can wait and what can be dropped

Quality Increases
We’ve got time to do the job properly and this is also paying us time back in the future because support workload is now lower

Reputation Improves
We’re becoming known as the people who get things done and the place to work if you want to cut the crap and get on


Priorities are clear, well-defined and have a simple justification and remain stable for long periods of time. Calm productive focus and performing a single task at a time are the norm.

To do a good focussed job people need to have an handful of simple clear priorities. This lets them easily distinguish value-adding activities from waste and kill a lot of pointless meetings, management and time-wasting activities that harm productivity.

This actually reduces workload, further increasing capacity. Priority stability allows tasks to get done properly and directly improves quality.

Both factors make the business a better place to work and better for customers.

How to get started

So how would you go about following this pattern in your organisation?

Survey a small sample of staff in one department and implement steps (1) and (2) – track how many priorities they have and how often they change, then make this visible to everyone involved and call a workshop to challenge and reduce them.

Let’s break it down into a small set of simple steps that can guide you through implementing a new approach to prioritisation.

There is some work involved in getting there and while everyone is really busy it can be very hard to get people to take the time to deal with this. You need to be very strong and force the issue – if it is never dealt with then you’ll forever struggle to get anywhere and work will become an unpleasant exhausting grind. Nobody should need to experience that.

If you are not sure about all of this yet then why not try out the Toe Dipping option as a first step?


1. Map Existing Priorities
List the priorities that each team and person have and how often they change. Look at task lists to gauge workloads. Pull this information together into a simple spreadsheet

2. Dramatically Simplify

A team struggles with too many priorities that create a storm of work items

Make this data available to everyone involved and call a workshop to simplify and identify a handful of true priorities.

Explicitly list and record priorities that can be dropped.

Capture people’s concerns and explore ways to address them.

3. Implement Simplification
Replace the old ways with the new priorities as an experiment. Keep the number of priorities deliberately low. Resist the temptation to add to them. Give people the freedom of time to respond and adjust how they work.

4. Enforce Stability

Switching across many tasks is far less efficient than just getting a few done because it takes a lot longer for anything to be finished

Establish a simple process to deal with changes to priorities and challenge them to ensure that they are not reactive and properly represent end-to-end goals of the organisation.

Actively promote and encourage “one-task-at-a-time” working.

5. Assess Impact
Repeat the mapping exercise and also examine how workloads have changed. Run a workshop with all participants to share findings, elicit anecdotal impacts and possible further improvements.

6. Establish Ongoing Prioritisation Monitoring
Turn the exercise in (1) into an ongoing background activity and regularly review how well prioritisation is working. Adjust as needed.


Why not enforce that no-one in your organisation has more than three priorities at any one time? It will seem impossible at first but will then quickly focus everyone on stripping out extraneous activity and identifying where the real capacity problems lie.

Closing thoughts

Tackling this issue is one of the hardest things you can do but it also pays the most dividends. Frequently the only way to enable a bigger change is to start freeing up some capacity first and that means an aggressive re-prioritisation of existing activity.

Go for it and don’t look back.

Please let me know how you get on. I’d love to hear from you,

Posted in Delivery Prioritisation, Execution.

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