A guide to juggling priorities

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Despite numerous books, theoretical frameworks and ongoing research, the art and science of juggling priorities still remains an enigma to most involved in setting up and establishing operations or ventures. When we decided to focus on this for our cover feature of this issue, we were clear of one thing. That it would not end up as another theoretical discussion. Instead we wanted to compile the experiences and insights of few senior executives and entrepreneurs into a rough guide that would serve as a clear starting point.

 

Having set the background, let us first get the fundamentals right.  Juggling priorities is today a way of corporate life. There is an endless list of tasks compounded by the need to keep firefighting on many fronts. And somewhere along the way many an entrepreneur or senior executive loose sight of the big picture or fails to realize what is important at that point of time. The juggling of priorities also assumes added importance as predicting the future beyond six months has become a proven hazard. This essentially means that there needs to be a constant planned effort to understand the changing environment, the changing landscape in terms of competition and the economies to decide what could be a realistic strategy for survival and sustenance. 

 

Now let us move one step further and categorize priorities as internal and external.  Internal priorities would include operational issues like marketing, finance, production, and external priorities could be things like new competition, alternative product options, customer relationship management, vendor management and new government policies among other things. 

 

According to Romil Turakhia, Director, radiume Technologies Pvt. Ltd., "Actually I do not believe that priorities have to be changed per se. It depends on what you define as priorities. Certain long term priorities will not change but their order might change. Its the urgency vs. importance struggle. It is very important for people to realise what's urgent but not important, what is important although it may not be urgent. Most of us end up handling only urgent issues, which may not be important whereas we should try and handle important issues before they become urgent."

 

Chips in Shivaji Sen Gupta, Chief Operating Officer, Nippon Acoustics India Pvt. Ltd., "I strongly believe that there can be no single "most important" priority both internal and external.  All of us have at any point of time many equally important priorities and it is the manner in which these priorities are managed in terms of  "juggling" them around at appropriate times that is critical to the effectiveness of a corporate leader."

 

Common pitfalls faced when juggling priorities

 

All said and done it is not easy juggling priorities. And there are some which are endemic and easily avoided. As Romil says, "I have made one of the most common pitfalls in juggling priorities many a time - mistaking movement for action. It goes like this. Let us  say my priority is to promote product X before I introduce product Y. Rather than actually charting a strategy for this, which requires a lot of time for thought (which none of us have unfortunately - there is this false sense of urgency), I would check if brochures for X are being made. Now, that is a classic case of movement/action - making the brochures is barely something, which you see as motion in front of you so you feel Oh! all will be well, but the actual action required suffers."

 

The second most common pitfall according to Pankaj Khanna, Vice-president - Business Development and Alliances of Jobstreet India is that many a time we fall in love with our own success and the way the success has come which limits the desire to review and change in the process forgetting a basic fact that change is the only constant. Basically this clouds our perspective, which is so important in being able to understand the changing scenario and juggle priorities accordingly.

 

I could personally quote lots of examples both in India and abroad of successful companies falling into this trap like Cisco, Yahoo or closer home Telco or Maruti.  

 

The third most common pitfall is that most corporate leaders tend to dwell on a particular priority too long in the process loosing sight of other important priorities which would have slipped past unattended. For example when a company is facing a financial crunch in terms of receivables, the senior management jump into the foray to police and/or recover these receivables and thereby sometimes forget to attend to customer relationship issues that are critical for any company's survival. What happens then is that by the time the receivables are in they would have lost sight of the customer. The customer would have moved in another direction or to your competitor.

 

Now having covered the common pitfalls here are a few approaches you could adopt to juggle priorities.

 

Approach - I (urgency/importance matrix)

 

Take all your current tasks/situations or areas where decisions are to be taken and try and plot these in this curve.  You would get some clarity on which one to handle first or which require immediate attention/action and then accordingly change priorities.

 

 

Approach II - Scoring mechanism

 

This is just to give an idea. Keep adding as many areas as possible to score. The more exhaustive, it is the better. Now for each task/priority think and then tick under that column. Keep doing that for all tasks/priorities. Now score one for each tick and the one with most ticks is logically the most important/urgent which needs immediate attention.

 

 

 

 

 

If I delay this,will it affect

Current Position

Growth

Profitability

Employee Motivation Effect

 

Task/priority

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Approach III - Periodic reviews

 
 

Each month pick up all the tasks and priorities in your organizer and fill it in the first column. In the adjacent columns fill in the necessary details. You thus have revised tasks/priorities and then give level to each of them. Level 1 is very crucial, Level 2 is Crucial so and so forth. This not only helps you prioritize but also serves as a mechanism to incorporate macro/micro changes into tasks/priorities.
 

 

Task/priority

Happenings on last one month

Impact

Change required

Revised Task/priority

Level

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

 Approach - IV

 

Another approach and something very generic is to adopt the "empowering" approach. Herein the corporate leader only looks at "priority issues" from the macro level and leaves the execution / firefighting etc to the people entrusted with the job. To make this approach effective (taking the receivables example earlier quoted in this article), pressure is put on the person responsible for business/receivables with periodic review. Alongside the corporate leader should also probably review the business prospects on hand to maximize on them and to understand the financial implications of one of the receivables not coming in at all (bad debt).

 

Here are some more tips to make your approach to juggling priorities work:

 

1.        Always try to move tasks into the quadrant (from the urgent-important matrix) which is "very important - not urgent". This will ensure that you may not have to
change tracks and priorities very often since most of us have tasks piled up in "very urgent - not important" or worse still "very urgent - very important". 

 

2.        In the review approach make it a point to question everything including successful practices

 

3.        In the empowering approach, detach yourself to go beyond current priorities to focus on vision and new opportunities etc., which are not defined.

 

4.        Keep multiple priorities on the "most important list" and juggle them around so that important intangible functions like vision etc. are focused with the same vigor as other important defined "priorities".

 

Like we said in the beginning what we attempted to give you is a guide that serves as a starting point. Hope absorbing all these approaches and tips helps you move ahead. And juggle your priorities well to become a successful corporate leader. Our wishes are with you.

 

(The cover feature was written by the businessgyan editorial team. Queries and feedback can be mailed to juggling@businessgyan.com)

 
 

 Issue BG4 July01