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  • Dr. Ken Thiessen

Priorities - The Antidote to the Tyranny of the Urgent


In my last blog post, I addressed the importance of getting the right people in the right seats doing the right things right. In my experience working with NPO’s this is no small exercise. The reason it presents a challenge to many NPO’s (and businesses too) is that they’re driven by the tyranny of the urgent. The urgent screams out for attention. It presents itself as a crisis which is sometimes the case, but most often the degree of urgency is over-rated and over-stated. Furthermore, the typical response to the tyranny of the urgent is rarely thoughtful, reasoned, or strategic. Most often, it’s a knee-jerk, reactive response. Outlining strategic priorities serves as the antidote to the tyranny of the urgent by bringing organizational alignment and focus.

3-5 Year Strategic Priorities

The place to start is with the 3-5 year time frame. If an NPO has clearly articulated it’s long term vision, then asking, “What do we need to focus our energies on in the next 3-5 years in order to make strategic and measurable progress towards our goal?” can really help bring that focus and alignment.

In identifying the 3-5 year strategic priorities, quality is more important than quantity. What do I mean by that? Identifying 4 or 5 priorities that are critical to the long term vision is a far better exercise than identify 6 or 8, several of which may be peripheral or one step removed from being “critical” to the long term vision. While it may not seem like a big issue, those peripheral priorities can easily distract the collective effort and energy from those priorities that really matter.

Don’t underestimate the challenge of narrowing the priorities to 4 or 5 and don’t be surprised if the process generates some passionate, even intense debate and discussion among your management team! But also don’t underestimate the importance of that dialogue and debate and whatever you do, don’t short-circuit it! It may feel awkward and counter-productive but the ruthless and disciplined exercise of wrestling this issue to the ground will produce significant positive results moving forward. It has the potential to really help refine your priorities in order to get produce the biggest return on investment for your organization.

1 Year Priorities

Once you’ve identified the 3-5 year strategic priorities, move the target in to the one year range. Of the 3-5 year priorities, which 1 or 2 are most critical to focus your energies on in the upcoming year? What specifically do you need to do in those critical priority areas? What will “success” look like? What will you measure? Who will do what and by when?

Those are all critical questions that help bring more of a laser focus to the collective energy and activity. It also serves to heighten the degree of alignment throughout the organization. That doesn’t mean you’re not going to focus on any of the other identified priorities but it does mean that you’re going to make sure that you invest most of your energy and resources into the top 1 or 2.

90 Day Priorities

Moving to the 90 day window brings even more clarity and focus to the team. Of those 1 year priorities, what do we need to do in the next 90 days to help you make focused, and strategic progress towards your one year priorities? This also serves to break the strategic planning marathon into a series of smaller sprints, making the longer term goal achievement more manageable and ultimately attainable.

Individual Priorities

The final, critical piece is to have each member of your management team, each department head, each person in each department identify their piece of the bigger, collective puzzle! “If these are our collective goals, what do I have to do, given my area of responsibility and authority, to help the team achieve our collective goals?” This helps each person in the NPO realize they are more than a number in a payroll system, they are an integral member of the team and their individual contribution is critical to overall team success! It serves to build a sense of mutual accountability, increases alignment, and strengthens the overall performance of the team.

The tyranny of the urgent will always be a reality, but identifying strategic priorities helps evaluate the legitimacy of the “apparent” urgency and then respond in a more thoughtful, reasoned, and strategic way that doesn’t compromise but actually serves to move the organization closer to its long-term objectives and goals.


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