Why Your Team Is Just Horrible at Prioritizing Work

Which of these scenarios would you pick as a leader?

  1. A team that never misses assigning a task to be done
  2. A team that always makes the right call on what tasks are the most important
  3. A team that never gets distracted in their focus
  4. A team that has balanced time for solo work and meetings

It may be hard to choose, but if my team always knows what is most important, I can deal with a lot of missed tasks, some distractions, and too many meetings.

Prioritization is one of the four pillars of productivity. You can’t do all the tasks or projects that are on your list on a given day–you have to pick. As Seth Godin says, “infinity is a trap”. And it’s the prioritization of your tasks that determines whether or not your team is successful. 

Prioritization seems like such an easy thing. Most people can look at a list of tasks and determine which ones will make the most impact.

And yet, we consistently mess this up. When you look back on the last year, did your team spend the bulk of their time and money doing the most important thing? Or were there long stretches of time that are all now wasted now because they didn’t have any effect?

As we look to the future of work, teams that have a deep culture of prioritization will stand far apart from those that can’t. Teams that can’t prioritize their work will be stuck running around in circles–staying busy, but never either making an impact or learning.

If knowing how to prioritize is so intuitive, why are we so bad at it? 

8 prioritization traps that teams fall into all the time 

1. Making prioritization decisions too quickly

The Eisenhower matrix is a fantastic model for making prioritization decisions…as long as you take it slow. In the heat of the moment, everything that is urgent also seems important. When your team prioritizes things in a chaotic, fast-paced atmosphere, anything can be justified as important. 

Priority must be given when the atmosphere is cool and low-pressure and when you can be ruthless about cutting down unimportant tasks. 

2. Fighting fires feels good

We get a buzz from handling the urgent. It’s why we check our messages and notifications right before sitting down to do some serious work. It’s like we say, “Is there anything urgent that I can spend my time on first before I do this very important thing?” 

Hell, sometimes we even light fires, or fan sparks into flames to justify the need to put on our firefighter gear. 

Firefighters also get all the glory. We tend to give more praise to the quick fixer on our team than the one who planned and executed a six month long strategy. 

3. Your don’t want people to think you are an asshole 

When you are focused on prioritization, you’ve got to say “no” a lot. And not just to tasks, but to people. Many of those people will say, “What’s the problem? I just need you to do this one thing.” A team that prioritizes their work won’t be the most popular one in the office. If you are leading a highly-focused team, don’t expect to win any congeniality awards. 

4. Doing easier things is easier

Without a clear view of what is important, your team will take the path of least resistance. There’s always this one big task that everyone knows is important, but no one wants to touch because it is so hard to get rolling. 

Doing the easy things feels good because it’s great to end the day crossing 12 things off your list than one. But everytime we focus on the easy stuff first, we open ourselves up to distractions and new emergencies that further delay the important stuff.

5. You want to show nice charts 

Important and innovative work doesn’t usually look great at quarterly business review meetings. You want to be able to show your peers that your team is rocking it, but doing the important work doesn’t mean you have good numbers to show. 

The most important thing you can do might lead to significant failure, but no one wants to put that slide up.

6. No one asks why

Do you have that person on your team who you want to throw in a closet every time you start a planning meeting? You know they will immediately ask, “But why are we doing this?” and mess up the nice charts you had planned. 

Most of your team assumes you have the vision and have already prioritized. But we all need that person who knows we are full of shit sometimes and need to be called out. 

7. You send mixed signals

As the leader, you have a strategy meeting Friday afternoon and decide the most important things to work on next week. Then, on Monday, something comes up and you have to throw a new task or project at them. They think,

Should we do what we all decided was most important? Or this random new task that just came up?

You have not only thrown off their ability to get the important things done but also called into question how seriously you take what is actually important. 

8. Blame it on the bandwidth

When you get to the end of the quarter and realize you’ve had very little impact, it’s tempting to say, “We just didn’t have the bandwidth.” A semi-good leader will hire more people to only work on the important stuff that didn’t happen. A great leader will say, “Why do we have all these people who aren’t doing priority stuff?” 

Bad prioritization always comes back to the leader

When there’s a talented, well-bonded team that’s not having much impact in the organization, the leader should always be held accountable. You can’t blame it on anyone else. If your team struggles with this, it’s not something you can pass off to others. 

…but good prioritization never stays with the leader

It would seem pretty horrible if a leader spent all of her day looking over all the tasks her team members were working on and constantly updating the priority. 

Let’s take it back to easy for a minute. 

We said that prioritizing work is actually pretty intuitive. It doesn’t take an abnormally brilliant person to be able to see what will have the most impact. 

That means everyone else on your team is equally capable of assigning priority as you are. 

So instead of micromanaging the priority of tasks for your team, you need to set up your team so that they can decide on the priority of their work without you. 

A good leader won’t just back off and say, “Ok, you all decide everything now.” You have to make sure your team members have the information, tools, and culture set up so that they can do their best work. 

10 ways to create a team that self-prioritizes work

Here are some prioritization techniques and principles that will help you make a team that can basically run itself. 

1. Be clear on the vision, goal, and metric

When everyone knows without a doubt where you are headed, everyone can see how they can help get there best. As a leader, it’s your job to clarify what the vision of the team is, what metric you’ll use to judge your success, and realistic goals to measure your progress. 

The leader doesn’t mandate these things, but clarifies them and makes sure that everyone is on the same page.

When everyone knows the metric and goal, it becomes much easier for others to see if what they are doing is having an impact. 

2. Priority comes in many flavors

After setting the goal and metric, invite your team to make a list of all the ways you can get there. Then facilitate a conversation to help decide what you should try first. 

  • Which idea is most challenging?
  • Which one has never been tried before?
  • Which one has the most upside?
  • Which one is guaranteed to work?
  • Which one do we know the best and can execute quickly?

When it comes time to choose which ideas to execute, there isn’t a single correct answer. Some options might be more exploratory and likely to fail, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put some effort into them. 

Whoever is working on that idea must believe that it is the most important thing they can do, whether it is exploring new options, or sticking to tried and true methods. 

3. Prioritizing tasks vs. projects

A common trap that leaders fall into is to try to focus on prioritizing their team’s tasks. This dips quickly into micromanagement. Also, it’s exhausting for everyone to check in often and say, “What do I do next?”

Instead of prioritizing tasks, you should focus on prioritizing projects. A project is a collection of related tasks (known and unknown) that help get you to the goal. 

Asking someone, “Did you do that SEO research I asked you about?” is focused on a specific task. Instead, saying, “I really think an SEO strategy is important to help us reach our goals. How is that project going on?” is a much better approach. Team members are in control of how the project gets done and is responsible for the outcome of the project, not just executing the tasks. 

4. Create systems and processes, then automate them

Projects are great for when you aren’t sure the impact a strategy will have on your goal. But once you know that something is working, if it follows a predictable workflow, then creating an automated process is the best path. 

Once you’ve found a system that works, your team should be able to create a process that runs on its own. You can identify lots of parts of the process where a machine or system would be more efficient or accurate than a human. 

The goal of automation is to be able to get your team to start new projects. You want them to move on and ask, “What’s the next thing that might have a great impact for us?” If your team is stuck only on prioritizing tasks, they’ll never be able to move out of them and explore new imaginative areas

5. Equip them with the right tools

If you want your team to self-prioritize work and manage their own projects and processes, you need to give them the tools to do it. Highly productive teams need to be able to quickly build, edit, and dismantle structures around their tasks, projects, and processes. 

But this doesn’t mean that every person on your team needs to have three separate licenses to highly advanced task, project, and process management tools. 

Instead, look for a digital workplace that gives team members the tools they need to organize any kind of work that comes their way. 

6. Protect your team from the urgent

As soon as your team is working on their priorities, lots of urgent things will come up that seem like they need to be done. As a leader, your job is to create a protective shield around your team and clearly communicate to them and others that they are working on very important work and shouldn’t be distracted. 

  • Don’t reward firefighting
  • Don’t be afraid to be seen as unhelpful
  • Don’t be a slave to whomever walks in the door

If you feel that your team is being distracted by others, ask very clearly why. If the overall company vision is no longer valid, you need to realign all of your priorities. Otherwise, fight hard to let your team focus on their priority work. 

7. Say, “Don’t do that”

Highly productive teams are unique in what they don’t do, not what they do. Your job as the leader is to continuously remind your team what everyone has collectively decided is the most important. Help team members who seem to be stuck in a trap of doing things that only have moderate impact instead of the truly impactful items. 

8. Stop doing things you don’t think are important (and see who notices)

Here’s a great trick from our podcast with David Burkus to determine if an existing task is really that important.

Stop doing it for a while and see who notices. 

If everything goes to hell and you’ve got people screaming at you, then that was probably an important task. 

If no one says anything and it takes a few months to notice, then it’s possible that no one needed to do that task anyway. Burkus says, “You’d be amazed at how much work you do simply because it’s always been done even though no one really needs it.”

9. Bring up the unspoken

Another job that falls on the leader is to speak the unspoken. Name the elephants in the room. Stop and ask why. Mention the thing that everyone is thinking but not talking about. 

It may be related to an underperforming team member, or a bad habit you’ve gotten into. 

Denial is the enemy of prioritization. As soon as you ignore something, you can’t work on it anymore. The leader’s job is to find it and talk about it. 

10. Celebrate important successes and failures

When your team does something that makes a huge positive impact on the vision, make sure to celebrate. Don’t just treat it as obvious and business as usual. Take time to recognize the work that people have done (and note the things they ignored to stay focused).

But not all prioritized tasks will end up in success. You may be exploring a task that failed to have an impact. Celebrate that as well and make sure to clearly document what you learned from the experience. Recognize that person an expert on the topic and thank them for boldly going where you hadn’t been before. 

You can do this (and so can everyone else)

As we’ve said before, nearly everyone is pretty good at prioritizing work. As long as you know where you are going, finding the best route on the map isn’t that hard. 

Being able to prioritize your work isn’t a significant advantage. 

Actually doing it is. The biggest advantage to building a team that knows how to prioritize is that most teams don’t.

But teams that prioritize their work only for efficiency and productivity will become specialists in things that will soon be irrelevant. If you are only focused on doing what you already do, but faster and cheaper, you won’t have much of a future. 

Instead, as you prioritize, keep your head up and recognize the importance of being flexible to what is coming down the road. Treat it as high priority to send out explorers who can find new patterns or come back with critical information to help you adapt to the future. 

Bravely focus on the future and use your team to find the best way there!

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