5 Keys to leading in disruption & uncertainty - Prioritise


It was December 2004. I had been asked by a local education authority to temporarily lead a school whose headteacher had left quickly and I had been asked to ‘maintain progress’. I had gone into the school before my official start and I started looking at paperwork. I sat there in the office with the paperwork laid out before me. I sat back in my chair and placed my head in my hands. ‘Where do I start?’ Everything needed doing.

In moments like these, in times of uncertainty, you can’t do it all. You have to prioritise and let everyone know what the focus will be.

This is the fourth of our blog series on 5 keys for leading in disruption and uncertainty. How to lead at a time when the organisation has not been in this place before requires these 5 things

· Visibility

· Authenticity

· Storyteller

· Prioritise

· Non-binary problem solving

Last week we looked at being a storyteller. This week, we examine the power of prioritising.

Get clear

‘Be clear and get others clear’. It is a key mantra for a leader. You need to know what you want before you can let others know. So, in a time of uncertainty you need to know and so do your people, what is the priority?

If things are hard on the organisation, what is your priority?

· Keep customers happy?

· Keep staff engaged?

· Reduce wastage?

There is no right or wrong answer, it depends on your current situation. You just need to know.

How do you decide on the priorities? Well it comes down to

· What are the foundations that your organisation needs to thrive?

· What will have the biggest impact?

· What is the priority at this time?

So, at the moment, during a pandemic, it may well come down to areas like

· Communication for clarity and to keep staff on board

· Quality of product/service to maintain customers

· Safe practice to keep people harm free

Chris McChesney in his book 4 Disciplines of Execution, highlights how having too many important goals waters down effectiveness. Their research showed that if you have 2-3 goals and you get 2-3 done well. Have 4-10 and you may get 1-2 done well. Have 11-20 and you get none done well.

Everything will be important, but in reality, people will only remember a maximum of 3 things. As people will be operating under stress, cortisol will affect their cognitive memory part of their brain, so it’s best to keep it to one or two things. If you can keep them short and snappy and memorable. It may sound cheesy, but alliteration, rhyme or rhythm helps people remember.

For example, a sales company may have “our focus is ‘communication and care’. I want every customer to have clear communication and know they are cared for.”

A cleaning company, may have, ‘Safe for me, safe for them’. If we leave this safe for me, then it will be safe for a customer.

I know of one local company who informed their cleaners about the importance of the cleaning to maintain customers and safety. They used the phrase, ‘we are bringers of joy’, to help them understand a clean site, created safety and brought joy to the customer’s experience. You are no longer a cleaner, but a ‘bringer of joy’. The cleaners chuckled at it, but remembered it.

List & authority

How do you go about it? Well, start by making a list of the things that are needed. You can tell your team. These are the 10 things that will need to be done, but for now our current priority is these 1, 2 or 3.

The next stage is to make clear to them, what good practice looks like in these areas.

The final part, and the most empowering, is to give your team authority to make decisions in those areas, now they are clear about the standard you are after. This gives the organisation responsiveness in these 3 areas. For example, if you want them to have care, and a customer is upset about something, you give them authority to make decisions about refunds or bonus items/service that the staff member can respond with without coming to you each time. As a leader, then share the best examples of when staff follow the priority well. If it goes wrong, privately review it with them so they know the better way for next time.

A number of people I have spoken to at this time, talk about how they are unsure what the priority or focus is for their organisation at this time. The best leaders, get clear and get others clear.

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