Our article "The Fallacy of 'Doing More with Less'" makes the case that doing LESS with less enables organizations to increase productivity because workers are not burned out by trying to do the impossible - i.e., more with less. But just how do we do that? Letting go of things requires making tough choices that managers often are unwilling or unable to make - i.e., they don't know how to prioritize. While the unwillingness to make tough choices is as critical an issue to address as is the inability to make them, this article is limited to the latter. Here are four techniques that can enhance your ability to prioritize:
1. Be crystal clear about the value the organization provides its customers/clients.
Go back to basics - i.e., what is the organization's mission, the purpose for its existence? Over time, the original mission often gets lost or expanded unintentionally. It's time to re-visit what you're doing and why. That is, how are your customers/clients better off for having used your products or services?
2. Identify mission-critical things and people - i.e., be sure every person, program, process, and policy contributes to that value.
Once you have identified the value the organization provides, be relentless about using it as the standard against which everything is evaluated. Only people and things that are critical to achieving that value are high priorities. As resources become available you can relax the standard to include things that enhance that value; initially, though, the focus should be on the basics only.
3. Question assumptions and beliefs about everyone and everything, including "sacred cows." Make the phrase, "But we've always done it this way" an unacceptable answer.
One way to make it easier to implement this technique is to begin with a clean slate rather than try to make changes to the status quo. That is, instead of taking the current state of affairs as a given and making adjustments to it, start by considering the value the organization provides (see #1 above) and working backwards. The question might be, "In order to provide this value, what must the organization look like, and how must we operate?" That's a totally different question than one that merely seeks to change to the status quo.
4. Identify the level of risk you are willing to accept, and take actions that are consistent with it. Make it safe for people to take the designated level of risk, and reward and recognize those who do.
Make sure there is a low perceived personal "cost" for employees to make suggestions about how to work more effectively. In our article "When Silence is NOT Golden," we address the harm caused when employees engage in a practice called "organizational silence." This is defined in part as choosing to remain silent rather than speak up to make suggestions that will help the organization. When employees believe it is riskier for them to speak up than to remain silent, the organization loses valuable information that can help it work more effectively.
In most organizations, various forms of misalignment creep in over time. One way to minimize that tendency is to ensure that all employees, not just managers, consistently assess programs, policies, processes, and people against the standard of the value provided to customers/clients. Teaching them how to prioritize would be a productive first step in doing that.
Pat Lynch, Ph.D., is President of Business Alignment Strategies, Inc., a consulting firm that helps clients optimize business results by aligning people, programs, and processes with organizational goals. You may contact Pat or call (562) 985-0333.
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