Management 101: Why You Must Aggressively Manage Ruthless Priorities

Article main image
Jun 27, 2014

Ruthless Priorities,” which I often talk about as a concept, is a wonderful way to focus your time and energy, but perhaps even more important and valuable, are the conversations that having clear Ruthless Priorities allow.

Let’s face it – just because you decide to think and work more strategically, doesn’t mean the rest of the world will back off and let you! All the demands, pressures, and crises will still come at you.

You need a strategy to defend your time and protect your ability to get your Ruthless Priorities done.

New conversations

  1. Later, not NO
  2. I’ve got your back
  3. WE have an issue (vs. I have a problem)
  4. We’ll do this one BEST

Ruthless Priority review

Before the conversations, let me just take a minute to review what I mean by Ruthless Priorities.

No Risk: Ruthless Priorities are those few (1-3 at most) things that you refuse to put at risk. You get them done. It doesn’t mean that you don’t also work on other things, but it means that you get your Ruthless Priorities done first. And best — no matter what. You do not tolerate risk on your Ruthless Priorities.

Some Risk: This implies that you DO tolerate risk on other things. You may do them slower, later, less completely, less scope/depth, outsource them, lower quality. You make this choice on purpose because you are refusing to put your Ruthless Priorities at risk at all.

(There is a whole chapter in my book, RISE, on Ruthless Priorities.)

Great conversations (brought to you by Ruthless Priorities)

It is truly a magical thing when you, your team, and your manager (at any level) can get aligned on Ruthless Priorities and have the right conversations.

1.“Later,” not “NO”

When you are heads down succeeding on a Ruthless Priority and anyone — your boss, a peer, or a generally annoying colleague — comes to you with an emergency, you don’t have to have the uncomfortable conversation of saying “NO.”

You can say, “Later.” You can say:

I am working on this critical priority, which I think you’ll agree is vital to the business. I will do your thing as soon as I get to the next milestone on this.

“Later” feels better than “NO” to you and them.

2. “I’ve got your back”

The real magic happens when you and your boss agree on your Ruthless Priorities. This is really what alignment is about.

Alignment is not about everyone saying the same thing is important in the room at an off site, it’s about everyone making the same decision when pressures come to throw you off course.

The wonderful conversation I have heard between employee and boss who have agreed on Ruthless Priorities is this:

Employee: I am getting nervous because I feel like my ruthless priority is at risk. A sales person has told me that we will lose a billion dollar deal if I don’t do this other task right now which will take me a week. If I do that, I’ll fail to complete the Ruthless Priority on time.

Boss: Yes, we agreed that is the Ruthless Priority and we can’t put that at risk. I’ll talk to the sales rep, and if it’s truly urgent, I’ll find another way to help him. You can’t stop what you are doing. I’ve got your back.

I get a small thrill every time I see this happen in practice!

3.”WE have an issue”

Every once in a while, even Ruthless Priorities pile up on each other, and risk ensues.

Now what?

One recent example was that I was working with a customer service team, and one of the support reps said: “This won’t work for me. What if I get three critical problems in at the same time — a critical customer problem is a Ruthless Priority for us, and I can’t handle three at once.”

Alignment and conversations

  • Conversation No. 1 — You tell all the customers that you are working on it right now, but you don’t tell them all that you will finish at the same time.
  • Conversation No. 2 — You tell your boss that you have  three critical customer issues that you can’t work on at once, so there is risk on your Ruthless Priorities. Some customers may get angry, and say you are not being responsive.

WE agreed that critical customer issues are alway Ruthless Priorities. This changes the conversation from “I can’t serve three customers at once” to “WE have a resource issue at this moment.

This gives your boss the opportunity to proactively call the customers or re-assign other resources.

If your Ruthless Priorities are at risk — when you are aligned with your boss, you are not alone in dealing with it. It lets you have the right conversation.

4. “We’ll do this BEST”

Let’s look at another example. I was working with a marketing team who had a Sales Kickoff, an Analyst Meeting and a Product Launch stack up on them in the same week.

They did not have enough people to a stellar job at all three of those things. The CMO felt personally responsible to do the impossible.

So we talked through Ruthless Priorities.

When you have too many things that feel equally super-important and your can’t prioritize, another Ruthless Priorities trick is this:

For each thing on your list to instead of asking, “Which is most important?” ask: “How bad is it if I fail?

A true priority will emerge.

In this case, the sales force was in a steady state. The product launch while super-important, was not pivotal to the business at this moment.

But the company story was a mess. And this was pressuring the stock price and the customer confidence.

If the analysts did not leave the event materially more confident, the new product and a ready sales force would still be climbing out of a credibility hole.

There it is: The Ruthless Priority is the Analyst Meeting (no risk: do this BEST).

Then, while the Product Launch and Sales Kick off are still super-important, and we need to get them done on time — we’ll tolerate some risk. (some risk: get these done, but don’t sign up for spectacular).

So the Ruthless Priority became: We need to hit the Analyst Meeting out of the park.

That is the one we will not put at risk at all, and on the other two, we’ll do the job, but not at the same level of excellence. They got it all done, and they nailed the Ruthless Priority.

Clarity on the “can’t-fails”

You could imagine a different scenario where the analysts were status quo, but product launch itself was the pivotal thing; or, a different one where the sales force was going through a critical transformation. Then one of the these would have got the no-risk, do it best treatment.

Or, If the whole company agreed that two out of three were vitally important, must be best, can’t fail, Ruthless Priorities, it would clearly point to the need hire some contractors to get through the peak.

Give your business the right conversations about priorities. By setting Ruthless Priorities and being clear about them, (and the resources they require), it allows you to have the right business conversations, and negotiate, and truly get aligned (everyone acts the same when pressure is applied) on the priorities.

The other key benefit of this approach is that you start to become known for getting the really important things done — reliably.

This was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog. Her latest book is Rise: How to be Really Successful at Work and LIKE Your Life.