An open letter to leadership teams

Dear leadership teams,

I want to start this open letter by saying I see the pressure you’re under right now. The imperative to deliver on multiple (and sometimes conflicting) obligations is both real and strident. It probably feels a bit like everything is falling into the ‘urgent and important’ quadrant - burning platforms all over the place. That VUCA acronym? It’s on steroids right now.

But I’m seeing a worrying trend when it comes to setting organisational priorities…

Too many of them.

As leaders, you hold an important list of what’s critical to the organisation’s success (and in some cases, it’s ongoing future). As you should.

The problem is that most of the time, these lists are too lengthy. 10 priorities makes an oxymoron of the word ‘priority’.

Organisational priority overload can fuel the flames of burnout. But it also means your teams are spread too thin, hindering achievement towards those goals you’ve set. They lack clarity on the ‘one rallying cry’, the 1-2 must do’s.

The more priorities you have, the less progress on them.

You might think your list is reasonable; it’s easy to miss the flow-on effect and interrelatedness of several big initiatives. That new performance appraisal system you want to roll out, on its own, seems do-able. But, add in the launch of a new IT platform, a restructure or major organisational cost-cutting initiative, a culture change – or heaven forbid, a merger, acquisition or sale - and workflow can get pretty wonky, pretty quickly, as it flows down throughout the organisational hierarchy. These big projects are on top of pretty challenging market forces for BAU right now.

Yes, mid-level managers and individual employees can get better at prioritising work. But they have far less power than you in determining what needs to get done and when. It begins with you. What you set in place cascades in ways you might not see.

So, when it comes to setting your key strategic initiatives and organisational priorities, please challenge yourselves to make a “to don’t list”. Debate heartily until you have 3 priorities maximum.

Here are some ideas on how, for starters:

1. Before you press ‘GO’ on any significant organisation-wide initiative, check what else is in play. Be realistic about what that new project might mean for your teams. Ask, can this be delayed - or even ditched?

2. Regularly review what you’ve started doing this month or quarter, what you’ve stopped doing, and perhaps, what you should stop doing. Be cognisant of sunk cost fallacy when it comes to projects.

3. Beware of the ‘kind of interesting, kind of important’ things that can creep into company initiatives which pull you – and likely whole teams – away from the must-dos.

4. Use your organisation’s purpose and long-term strategy to focus your priorities. If it doesn’t fall into those few key strategic pillars, don’t do it. Be brutal in deciding what your organisation does this year.

5. Try piloting more often. Good idea? Maybe trial it in a small team first, then review and improve, instead of thinking it has to be done organisation-wide from the get go.

6. Remember that quote: “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.”

For more tips, check out Chapter 10 ‘Organise’ in my book Beyond Burnout. And I’d love to hear what ways you are tackling this issue.

Yours sincerely,

Suzi McAlpine


August 7, 2023 AT 3:45PM

This was so well said.

We get so wrapped up in the many good things we could do. it makes it difficult to do the great things we are meant to do.

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