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Prioritisation is easy; trade-offs are harder

Thrive Advisory | 30/01/2023

You’ve probably done it before (or had it done to you).  A team member comes to you, concerned about their workload (or perhaps, you observe that someone in your team is suffering in silence). As good leaders (and genuinely caring humans), we gently coach the people in question to do a better job of ‘prioritising’. We might even whip out an Urgent/Important matrix to help them to assess which of their tasks they should be starting with. But how much of the time are we encouraging people to prioritise when we should actually be giving them permission (and guidance) to make trade-offs? 

Prioritisation is relatively straight forward of course. We frame the focus areas and actions that are most important/urgent and create a list to work through in chronological order. It’s straight forwardness probably served us well in less dynamic / high pressure times; but as the VUCA factor in the world of work continues to increase; it seems that prioritisation is no longer enough.  

Perhaps our continued fixation on prioritisation is because many of our organisations still operate in the now outdated paradigm of productivity. The Industrial Age was of course characterised by a relentless focus on efficiency and optimisation, and though few of us would argue that the world has moved on, the underlying assumptions and values of ‘prioritisation’ still smack of this age of productivity; After all, on a production line all of the steps are critical, the questions were therefore who should do them and in what order.  

Whilst prioritisation is solely focused on ‘where’ and ‘when’ we should get to a task, managing trade-offs and paradoxes requires us to ask the tougher question of ‘if’ we should be doing it in the first place. This is tricky given we tend to assume every task is important on some level; after all, if it wasn’t, why would you have been asked to do it? But as we discussed in our article last year; we have a human bias towards the additive; taking things off our to do lists (or the to-do lists of others) is not in our nature.  

Despite this human bias, we simply have to get better at this if we are to truly address the challenges of wellbeing and support our leaders, teams and organisations to have sustainable performance 

Towards the end of last year, many of our clients were expressing concern at the unsustainability of their own and their teams’ workloads; many are just as concerned about what is shaping up to be an equally challenging 2023. The wellbeing of individuals and teams (and the psychosocial risks and related litigation that flow from not focusing on workloads and wellbeing adequately) continue to be top priorities for CEOs, leadership teams and Boards.  

Given this, as we return from holidays and embark on planning for the year, perhaps we should be reframing strategic prioritisation exercises as trade off and paradox management conversations; interrogating the activities that are naturally falling to the bottom of your prioritisation matrix, challenge yourselves to trade some of them off or consider re-resourcing your teams, divisions and organisations to manage more fulsome demands.  

Here are some tricks on making good trade-off decisions: 

Consult with stakeholders: Although it can be difficult, particularly when it comes to clients, very senior stakeholders (or very senior clients), it is good practice to bring these parties in on your trade off decisions. Quite often, people are open to discuss trade-offs if you lay out the resource constraints and other priorities; but they need visibility and trust in your intent to get to the best outcome. A gentle remember to avoid blanket statements; at the end of the day, no one wants to hear ‘I can only do X, and not Y’- it’s a conversation, not an ultimatum.  

Interrogate underlying drivers: As hinted in the last point; the key to making good trade-offs is about staying laser focused on outcomes rather than outputs. Understanding ‘why’ your stakeholders need something will help you to make an informed trade-off. You would be surprised how often we hear the answer to the question ‘Why are we doing this?’ is ‘Because we did it last week/month/year’ or ‘Because we have always done it that way.’ If someone cannot point to an underlying outcome that will suffer if the work doesn’t get done; it can probably be deleted, de-prioritised or re-designed.   

Be creative: Sometimes the answer is not to scratch an activity completely off the list; but perhaps to only do a part of it, or to get to the same outcome in a different way. Think about all those presentations you and your team are painstakingly creating; if they’re not going to external stakeholders, could some of them be bullet point conversation guides?  

Trade-offs are about putting your money where your mouth is, and ultimately, for most teams who want to continue to deliver with the same resource profile and maintain the wellbeing of their team, some things are going to have to give. The trick is helping your employees to figure out the things that can.