Setting Priorities Effectively: First Clear the Organizational Clutter

One of the big questions people across organizations are asking themselves is, “How do I prioritize my work?” Especially in the aftermath of layoffs, furloughs, and budget cuts, people are seeking effective ways to manage the work that needs to be done.

Before you can begin to set priorities, you first must see clearly what you have to work with. However, given the number of substantial changes many organizations have been through in the past year or so, such clarity may be elusive. Think of a junk drawer in your kitchen. The most effective way to organize it, I have been told by a professional organizer, is first to empty the drawer completely, and then begin to sort through the contents. Only after you have cleared out the objects that obviously will not be going back in the drawer can you begin to make good decisions about what actions to take with the remaining items.

Last year I wrote an article called Clearing the Organizational Clutter whose purpose was to help people cut through the “stuff” that accumulates over time like the things we throw into a junk drawer – e.g., dysfunctional structures, unnecessary programs, misaligned processes – so the organization can optimize its business results. Revising slightly the suggestions from that article, here are ten actions that will get you started in clearing the organizational clutter so you are better positioned to set priorities effectively:

1.  Gain clarity on your vision, values, and goals so the picture of the organization that employees have in their heads is the same as the picture in executives’ heads.

2.  Keep your goals front and center. When you are thinking about the importance of existing programs, systems, or processes, stop and ask yourself which goal(s) they support. If the reply is “none,” they should go to the bottom of the to-do list, or – absent a compelling reason – dropped from it altogether.

3.  When you consider requests to add new things or people, ask what specific goal(s) the proposed additions support. If none, decline the proposed additions.

4.  Review your organization structure. Does it still serve you well given the changes (e.g., decreased size, technological advances) that have occurred? Will it serve the organization as it implements its strategy?

5.  Evaluate employee performance honestly to ensure you have the right people in the right jobs.

6.  Audit your processes to ensure they are necessary and that they are working as effectively as intended. If not, make the changes that enable them to reach the desired level of performance.

7.  Resolve to stop building processes and organizational structures around dysfunctional people and reporting relationships.

8.  Question assumptions rather than doing things just because they’ve always been done a certain way. There can be no “sacred cows.”

9.  Ensure that employees have something to show for their efforts at the end of the day rather than coming up empty-handed because they engaged in non-productive “busy work.”

10. Consider zero-based exercises – e.g., budgeting, staffing – that begin by taking a look at what is needed and utilizing only those resources that meet the needs. This is in contrast with most existing systems, which simply build on what is there without having to justify or even think about it.

What steps will you take today to begin to clear the organizational clutter that is preventing you from setting the priorities you need to optimize business results?

© 2009 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.

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