Why do priorities run amok? There are three primary and interrelated reasons:
1. There is no common vision.
When people do not share the same “picture” of the intended outcome, there is no touchstone or “true north” to which they can refer to ground themselves. Instead, each person or sub-group has its own picture. In a worst case scenario, people think they share a common picture when they really do not. With different pictures, it’s no wonder that priorities will be wildly different.
One example that comes to mind is that of a city that has no clearly articulated mission statement. Especially in times of economic challenges, how are decision-makers to set priorities? Without a common “picture” of the city’s mission, who is to say whether preserving public safety jobs is a higher priority than keeping libraries open seven days a week, or than maintaining full access to public parks? One person’s opinion becomes just as valid as another’s. Absent a common “big picture,” it is impossible to reach consensus on priorities.
2. There are no clear criteria for setting priorities.
A priority may be described as something that occurs earlier in time than something else because for some reason, it is more important. Typically when we prioritize, we list (then do) the most important thing first, then the second most important, and so on. Importance is determined by developing criteria relative to the vision or outcome we are trying to achieve. Yet often we see situations in which people insist that everything is a priority. When there is no effort to create distinctions among choices, then by definition, nothing is a priority.
3. There is no accountability.
While it is true that decision-makers are accountable for the priorities they create or adhere to when making choices, others play an important role as well. For example, elected officials are given the authority to make decisions for their constituents. If their choices are not consistent with the outcomes they were elected to achieve, then it is incumbent upon voters to replace the misguided decision-makers. But how often do voters actually hold their elected representatives accountable by replacing them when their choices do not help achieve the desired outcomes? When the accountability part of the “check and balance” system we have in the U.S. breaks down, the political environment will support priorities that run amok.
Though the above examples may suggest otherwise, misaligned priorities are not limited to the political arena; there are plenty of examples in the private and public sectors as well. What are some of your favorite examples?
© 2010 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.