Perfect number of Strategic Priorities

A couple of months ago I was working with a senior female executive working for a multinational organization and my task for the project was to coach her for an upcoming internal interview. We were focussed on building a capability to story tell on her feet.

At one stage of the coaching we were working on a narrative on strategic priorities of the business. I asked her, “ So, what are the strategic priorities?” She could remember that there were 9 of them but couldn’t remember what they were. Honestly, there was nothing wrong with her not being able to remember because I am yet to meet anyone who can clearly articulate even 1 strategic priority of the business they work in.

In my 15 years of corporate career I can’t remember any time when I knew what the business priority was. I did not even know they existed and here I was leading teams, setting department strategies, goals and at one stage even responsible for an annual revenue generation of AUS $17 million.

Then what is the point of having a strategic priorities right?

I have always wondered this but a book I am reading currently solved this puzzle for me. This is what I read in Essentialism by Greg Mckeown

The word priority came into the English language in the 1400’s and it was used in the singular and meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years, and only in the 1900s did we pluralise the term and started talking about priorities. As Greg McKeown says ” Illogically, we reasoned that by changing the word we could bend reality.” Somehow we would now be able to have multiple “first “ things.

So, having multiple priorities means many things being the first thing to do which really equates to actually nothing is the first thing to do. If your people can’t understand or remember what the priority is – how are they meant to prioritise it?

However, its not just about remembering Strategic Prioritise the real essence lies in the fact that strategic priorities come with tradeoffs. Some of the most successful businesses are built on this focus. Here is a great story from Apple that brings this point home.

Did you know that Apple was working on the concept building iPad long before the iPhone but they put iPad on shelf to focus solely on the iPhone as they considered iPhone to be more important. Instead of saying lets work on both iPhone and iPad Steve Jobs created a focus but that came with a sacrifice or tradeoff. This is a great story that conveys that the joy of focus is built on sacrifice. Here is a Video of Steve Jobs talking about this story.

So what can we do?

If you are leading the next strategy session don’t brainstorm for the longest list of priorities.

Start a conversation with your team on what will we not do instead of what shall we do?

When we start by making decisions on what not to do we start gaining clarity on what to do.

As McKeown says Deciding to cut options can be terrifying — but it is the very essence of what we mean by making strategic decisions. The Latin root of the word “decision” — cis — literally means to cut.

If you are not the one who leads strategy brainstorms. Get up and ask your leader, ” What is our Strategic Priority and why?”

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