I was working with the top leadership team of a children’s welfare institute to help them clarify their goals. They had listed the top priorities for the year, all good and all important. There was just one problem. The simply couldn’t do everything on the list, and they couldn’t seem to eliminate any. Priorities by definition were all important and had to be done this year. They were stumped and the atmosphere was getting tense.

Each manager advocated strongly for the priorities for which they were accountable. Program evaluators argued for the importance of evaluation, while children’s rights advocates lobbied for the importance of advocacy. Since it seemed like not everything could be done at the same time because of limited resources, stakes were high. They looked stuck.

I began to work with them on a process of sequencing over time as opposed to prioritizing how to do everything at once. It would help them see natural clusters among their goals, identify a natural order to working with these clusters, and create a robust plan that would roll out over several years. Extending their planning horizon would legitimize different priorities over time while increasing the likelihood that today’s priorities would get sufficient resources. They were very satisfied with the results.

Here is what we did.

1)    The managers listed all of their priorities. It had 16 items:
                     
        

2)    They organized this list into natural clusters. Clustering gave them hope that the challenge was manageable. Three clusters emerged:

                                   

3)    They looked for natural relationships among the three clusters. Discovering these connections motivated them to listen more closely to each other and value their respective views. They realized that evaluating what they did was foundational to the other two categories of work. By better understanding how well their programs performed, they could network more effectively with their peers – both sharing with them what worked and learning from them in the areas where they themselves were not performing as well. By developing stronger evidence demonstrating where they were successful and targeting specific programs for improvement, they would be able to mount a more compelling advocacy campaign.

4)    They visualized these relationships as a natural sequence of work to be implemented over four years. The following map shows how they planned to allocate resources to the three clusters over time:
                                 
                                   

They did not stop work in any area at any point in time, although that might have been appropriate if tougher resource decisions had to be made. Instead, they put more emphasis on evaluation for the first two years while simultaneously maintaining a lower level yet necessary presence with professional peers and policymakers. As their evaluation capabilities grew, they could devote more resources first to networking – to learn from peers how to improve certain programs – and then to advocacy as their performance and ability to communicate that performance increased. The managers were committed to the plan because each could see how his/her contributions were essential to the institute’s success.

So, when you are confronted by a long list of priorities, limited resources, and people defending their own work, consider sequencing vs. prioritizing to develop an effective strategy. Your approach will be more manageable within resource constraints and supported by managers with understandably different priorities.