You shouldn’t have priorities

Note: this article was originally published on 13th January 2016

Let’s get things straight: you cannot have priorities. How do I know this? Priority should be used as a singular term.

A priority is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “A thing that is regarded as more important than others”. It’s therefore contradictory to have priorities, as one will ultimately be more important than the others, thus rendering the others not priorities by definition.

The word priority originated from the the Latin prior, meaning first. Until the 1940’s, the word priorities did not even appear in the dictionary. It’s most likely a reflection of modern societies intemperance, where multiple things are percieved to be of equally great importance.

Disagree? Okay — grab your list of priorities. Now, imagine a world where only one of them can possibly take place, no matter what. Pick one. Just one… Got it? That’s your priority.

In any team having priorities can cause conflict and confusion. McChesney et al articulate this well in the book The Four Disciplines of Execution. They argue that day-to-day whirlwind in any organisation causes confusion and consequently inefficiency. Having a priority enables teams to focus on the task that’s important, and to lessen the impact of the daily whirlwind.

Imagine being clear on your priority, coming into work and not worrying about 100’s of distracting emails and Slack messages — you know exactly what your priority is and how you’re going to execute it that day. Feels good.

In order to achieve this, McChesney et al believe teams should have a wildy important goal, WIG for short. WIGs should take the form “do X to Y by Z”, for example “increase conversion by 5% by 31st January”. This is clear, lacks ambiguity and enables the team to focus entirely on a single thing; their priority.

Organisations often struggle with this concept. As we’re now in January many organisations are going through the process of goal setting. Your division may have anything from 5–20 goals for the year, and you may be able to positvely influence many of the goals. Faced with 20 goals though, how do you know where to start? Were there to be a single goal, a WIG, a priority, it’d be clear where to start and it’d enable all teams to rally around with a singular focus on achieving that goal. And surely that amplification of effort leads to improved results.

Next time you’re tempted to say “priorities” I implore you to append “my one” to that phrase. Saying “my one priorities” will a) make you look like a fool, but more importantly b) cause you to swap out priorities for priority.

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