For as long as humanity has ventured onto the high seas, sailors have used the stars of the night sky to navigate across the otherwise featureless expanses of Earth’s oceans. While that sounds hopelessly complicated and belonging to the realm of astronomical experts, it is actually far simpler. Thanks to the relatively fixed position of the North Star atop the Earth’s northern pole — a title currently held by Polaris, but only for a few thousand more years — a rudimentary understanding of some basic geography will go a long way. Once you’ve found it in the sky (it’s simple), the North Star’s position provides you with not only a reliable heading compass, but also an easy way to determine one’s latitude in the northern hemisphere using the star’s position relative to the horizon. As long as you know where you are and where you are trying to go, measuring your progress against the North Star will keep you moving in the right direction.
In his book Essentialism, Greg McKeown notes the all-too-familiar slide leadership teams take down the path of “staff meetings where as many as ten ‘top priorities’ are discussed with no sense of irony at all.” Part of the problem, McKeown points out, is the very words we use to describe important things and the order of their importance.
The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities. Illogically, we reasoned that by changing the word we could bend reality. Somehow, we would now be able to have multiple “first” things. People and companies routinely try to do just that.
The entire point of having a priority is to enable everyone on the team to know in which direction they should be making tradeoff decisions. This is especially helpful when people find themselves in the myriad of grey areas and conflicting values that life never ceases to present them. But if the leaders themselves don’t make tradeoff decisions by labeling every important thing as a priority, confusion reigns. The best efforts of the best people result in lots of calories burned but little actual progress. Ron Ashkenas, strategic consultant and author of Simply Effective, observes in his article “The Problem With Priorities”:
The head of a large hospital brought together her direct reports and asked them to create a separate card for each major project or initiative underway. They then placed all of these cards on the wall and realized that, between the ten of them, they had over 150 active projects, many of which were drawing upon the same resources or impacting the same groups. It was no wonder, the team realized, that they were behind schedule and that their people felt overloaded.
Despite the realization that they had too much on their plates (and too many cards on the wall), this leadership team still struggled with narrowing their focus. Many felt that everything was important and nothing could be dropped without serious consequences. But if everything is called a priority, then nothing is. In fact, what’s worse is that people at lower levels, faced with the impossible task of trying to respond to everything, end up deciding what is important based on their more limited sense of the company’s strategy and their ability to get things done. By not clarifying the few key priorities, leadership teams unintentionally delegate priority-setting to their people. And then they wonder why everyone isn’t on the same page.
If you are leading a team — regardless of size — give them the clarity of a single priority. Among the many important things in your world that number like the stars in the heavens, what is the one thing that is constant, around which all the other things revolve? Identify your organization’s polestar and give your people that singular point of reference to guide them. That idea, mission, statement, or goal will enable your team to confidently move forward even in the face of uncertainty. With that single point of light to guide them, they will always know in which direction success lies.[Header image credit: http://cs.astronomy.com/asy/m/other/490586.aspx]