It’s only a few weeks into 2022, but I’ve had one conversation multiple times already. In each case, the leader I’m speaking with has big ambitions for their organisation, but is getting feedback from team members that they have too much to do. “We need to prioritise” is the push back these leaders are hearing.

Now, of course, it’s entirely possible that these leaders are making completely unrealistic demands on already overworked team members. After all, most leaders are much better at making ‘to-do’ lists than ‘to-don’t’ lists. It’s also very common for leaders and their teams to optimistically add more projects and initiatives to their agenda, before the existing ones have been completed.

On the other hand, prioritization is a much more complex issue than most people appreciate, and it’s certainly more involved than just the ‘size of your list’. Think about your own experiences; how many times have you shrunk your list of priorities, only to find yourself overwhelmed again a short time later?

So, beyond the number of priorities on your list, what else should you and your team pay attention to?

Reframe the issue

My colleagues and I have worked with a particularly successful team for many years. Every year, they declare that they have way too much to do, can’t get it all done, and need to focus on prioritization. “We need a shorter list” is the common sentiment. And yet, every year, they get the important stuff done, and produce remarkable outcomes that energise themselves and delight their stakeholders.

Guess what happens as a consequence? They end up with a long list of things to do; in part because their stakeholders want the team engaged in any and every important project, and in part because the team really wants to participate in those important projects. After all, high performing teams and individuals want to be involved in the most important work; the stuff that really makes a difference.

Successful individuals and teams usually have a long list of important things to do, precisely because they’re successful. The real issue is not the size of the list; it’s the significance of the projects on the list. If those projects are of increasing importance, year on year, then that’s a sign of your team’s progress and contribution. Accept that you’re always going to have plenty to do, adjust your expectations, and enjoy the journey.

Make sure the work is meaningful

When you’re considering the length of your priority list, how long is too long? That’s an entirely subjective question. Of course, you always want to focus on the fewest number of things that really matter, but “fewest” is, once again, entirely subjective.

One thing I’ve observed is that those who have a strong sense of meaning for their work, don’t usually complain about having too many priorities. I suspect that’s because they feel their work really matters, which also makes it easier for them to ignore the stuff that doesn’t really matter. Since they can see the difference their effort makes, they can confidently embrace big goals and take ownership of them.

When people complain about too many priorities, it’s often because they see no real purpose in their work. So, don’t just look at the size of your list, look at the significance of the items on it. Why should your people care about each of these projects?

Pay attention to the impact of leaders

If leaders encourage team members to avoid responsibility, to fear making mistakes, to stay on top of every little detail, to compete with one another, to depend on them for all decisions, or to say “yes” to every new idea without question, then those team members will feel overwhelmed.

In this kind of environment, everything takes longer than it should, and every interaction is loaded with angst, or worse. There is no greater impact on team member capacity, than leadership.

Pay attention to the effectiveness of meetings and decision making

If the outcome of a meeting is another meeting, if people attend without knowing why, if decisions are delayed or avoided, if people are physically present but mentally absent, if people walk out unclear on what was agreed, decided or what the next actions are, or if the ‘real’ meetings happen in the hallways afterward, then team members will feel overwhelmed.

Ineffective meetings and ineffective decision-making waste more time and energy in the average organization, than anything else.

Pay attention to ‘shadow projects’

A prolific source of overwhelm in team members comes from shadow projects; those projects that don’t appear on the official list of priorities, but consume significant amounts of time, energy and resources. In essence, they live in the “shadows” and avoid the scrutiny applied to official projects.

These projects often originate from senior leaders who can marshal resources toward an area of personal interest or perceived value. They usually end up on the ‘to-do’ lists of central support functions, like technology, human resources and finance.

If you want to understand the number of shadow projects going on in your organization, ask the heads of your support functions to provide a list of all of their priorities, that have not been officially endorsed or scrutinized according to your formal processes. The results will likely frighten you.

A short list of priorities is a worthy pursuit, but in and of itself, it guarantees nothing. If you want your team members to feel on top of their work, rather than overwhelmed, then you’ll need to pay just as much attention to their mindset, the meaning of the work, the impact of your leadership, the effectiveness of your meetings, and the number of shadow projects in play. I hope this blog will help you to do just that.

If you’re looking for some bite-sized leadership insights, inspiration and tactics in between these long-form blogs, I’m now posting daily to Instagram. You can get access by following me here.

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about PETER

For two decades, Dr. Peter Fuda has been a Sherpa to leaders, teams and organizations across the globe. He’s coached more than 250 CEOs to measurably higher levels of performance. His consulting company has delivered dozens of cases of business transformation and thousands of individual cases of leadership transformation, at a success rate of greater than 90%.

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