Question: How to prioritize when everything is Top Priority

After a long corporate career, I have moved to a smaller organization in my industry. I work on several simultaneous projects and report to the CEO.

I have fewer staff and more responsibilities, which I was expecting. However, I am quite surprised by a culture where everything seems to be Top Priority...all the time.

What's the best way for me to bring this up? I want to understand if this is a passing phase or the organization's culture.

8 Expert Insights

I suspect that this culture would lead to some performance problems, such as will incomplete, or substandard work on the most important projects.

I think before you bring it up you need to have a clear story about the negative consequences, if there are any. If everything is working fine, get used to it.

Your situation is not atypical for those moving from larger to smaller organizations. Therefore, let me take a slightly different approach than my colleagues have and encourage you to look at what improvements YOU can make in how you juggle priorities.

Some suggestions for upping your game:

• Accept that any frustration or productivity loss you're experiencing when shifting between priorities is self-imposed.

• Refuse to grouse about how inconvenient and disruptive the sudden shifts are -- your job doesn't allow for the luxury of self-pity. Oh well. When priorities may be plentiful, know that the effective utilization of your time is what's really #1. Your time is a scarce resource; use it more wisely and powerfully. (Instead of taking 60 minutes for a meeting; finish in 45; instead of asking 5-7 questions to get what you need, ask 2 or 3; instead of focusing on activities, focus on desired outcomes; etc.)

• Envision your job less linearly -- more like a portfolio manager, responsible for multiple projects (all at once), than a project manger responsible for only one (at a time).

• Get significantly better at shifting more seamlessly between priorities by studying what those who do it better than you are doing that you are not. Study, too, what they are not doing that you are. Then take those best practices and make them your own.

• Shift from a priority-based focus to a time-based focus, meaning, start with a time interval (say 15 minutes), determine what you can do to move this priority meaningfully forward within that time frame, and do that. Then repeat the process for the next priority, etc. Challenge yourself to achieve increasingly meaningful outcomes in decreasing amounts of time.  

Is it easy? No. Is it important? Absolutely. Be proud that you get to report directly to the CEO, that your job is to keep things moving for him/her and the company, and that this quicker tempo is something you're working to master.

From my experience, the 'I need it all right now' culture you speak of is probably a deeply routed part of a rather disorganized, hectic way of doing things.  Getting the powers to be to change all at once is not going to be very effective.  Here's what I suggest:

1.  Establish your own priority system.

2.  Talk with the folks that have low priority tasks about why they feel they are high priority. Try to gain agreement for a specific outcome and deadline.

3.  Get good at negotiating demands so they fit your schedule.  Instead of waiting to hear what is due and when, suggest a completion date that works for you and challenge them to agree to it.

4.  Push back on irrational or arbitrary requests and make the source justify what they want.

Now, all of these techniques will work if you handle them respectfully and diplomatically.  You must win them over with your ability to understand their needs, plan and deliver the results.  Eventually, they will come around and be easier to deal with.  If not, they will at least recognize your level of clout and be less arbitrary about the demands they hand you.

Since I work with small businesses, I see this culture shock often.  Larger corporations might manage culture and be purposeful about it.  In small companies it just...exists.

First I suggest you decide your goal.  Do you raise the question here because you want to get projects done without stressing out, or because you are feeling compelled to "help" the organization “improve” the culture?

If the former, then use the good advice from other responses in this stream: look to the vision/mission of the company (if one even exists in writing!), and use whatever skills you already own to prioritize what's on your plate, making best guesses about criteria.

If the latter, and want to build a more productive/less conflicted environment, start with Curiosity.  As a direct report to the CEO, you are likely positioned to be an influencer in this company.  You might start by sharing your experience and asking, "is this environment intentional, or is this simply what's in place because we've never thought about it?"  My experience in smaller companies is that the way they do things is based on what’s “easiest” or on precedent, not necessarily best practice.  By being curious (not judgmental) you can open up a conversation w/ the CEO and the leadership team.

Come from an Appreciative point of view, to honor what's in place, e.g. What's good about our current process/culture?  How does it serve us to have "everything be a priority?"  Then move a conversation of Possibility, e.g. “if we were reinventing our culture, what might we do differently?”  Engage them in a Stop-Start-More conversation:  What do we want/need to Stop doing that gets in our way?  What do we want/need to Start doing that would help us be more productive/creative/etc? and What do we need to do More of/more often to support our goals?

In that process of conversation and curiosity, you can learn if people are happy w/ the culture or if they are just embedded in it and unaware that it could be different.

I think you are wise to be careful in bringing this up. Small company people will often mistrust those with corporate experience, sometimes justifiably! And it's usually not a good idea for an outsider to tell the veterans how screwed-up they are.

I think it would be best to tackle this cultural issue on the personal level first; don't try to convince your colleagues that they're all disorganized and you can sort them out. Instead, and if you feel your boss is at least somewhat approachable, I'd encourage you to draft your own sense of priorities, including due dates, budgets, etc. In other words, introduce some structured thinking on your projects and see if you can get confirmation, or refinement from your boss. Then, do your best in concentrating on those priorities while avoiding being sucked into the chaos happening around you.

I picture you as a beacon of sanity and calm amidst a raging storm.  Good luck!

There's a chapter in my book "Scrappy Project Management: The 12 Predictable and Avoidable Pitfalls Every Project Faces" that is titled "Priority? Everything is #1!" Here are a couple of paragraphs from that chapter. The whole book can be yours on Amazon for a pittance:

Why don’t people set priorities? I think it’s because they don’t understand how to use them properly and fear they will result in critical work being put on the back-burner forever. Not so. A priority list actually increases the amount of work that gets done, as much as doubling productivity, by reducing the waste caused by constantly jumping from task to task like a Chihuahua that ate a pile of espresso beans.

After a while, setting priorities can become positively addictive! Once you get the hang of prioritizing, you may find yourself rank -ordering everything from chores to TV shows to former lovers. It’s very clarifying to realize that the household task that you’re working on is #13 on your list and you’re only doing it to avoid the #1 most important thing you should be doing, like filing your tax returns or completing your on-line traffic school. When you don’t have the luxury of limitless time or money, priorities will set you free.

Look at the vision and mission statements of the organization and take action on the first priority that clearly fits. Create a timeline for fulfilling all priorities but do them in the order that fits the publicly expressed goals. Be reliable and move forward with confidence, asking your superiors, as you go forward with each step, if it is acceptable to move forward immediately. They will appreciate your ability to establish a ranking of priorities, the action on each, and their opportunity to be part of team and see you as a valuable part of the team. Best wishes to you and keep in touch!

My hunch is that there are two things operating here and as they combine, the result feels like chaos in which no one has personal control over anything.  The first relevant fact is you have come from a large organization to a small one.  The problem in large organizations, especially if they are successful,  is they have too many people because they feel they can afford to carry even less productive but long-term employees.  Many of their people, therefore, are under-employed.

The opposite is true in small organizations, especially in start-ups where most people have to become "everyman," able to jump in and do whatever needs doing.  In this case a culture develops in which everything is super-important because people feel you have to insist your piece is the arch that supports the organization and without it, all is lost.  That's rarely true.

Slow down.  Observe.  Think.  It is never true that everything is equally critical and must be accomplished NOW.  There are two primary variables to consider:  How critical is "X" in terms of the business of the business and second, how much time will it take?  As you're new ask questions so you can learn how much value "X" contributes and you can estimate the time that's required.

Multi-tasking sounds like a solution.  It isn't.  Every time you shift your focus, time is lost regaining it.  Set priorities, create a schedule, break larger projects into smaller pieces and complete the days' tasks before moving on to something else.  Regain the feeling you have an important amount of control over your day...week, etc.  That liberates you from the exhaustion created by the pressure of nothing is ever enough.  And, at least for now, remember you are the outsider and you can't afford to alienate longer term employees.  Above all, earn their respect and trust before you tell them what (you think) is wrong in the organization.