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How to help your team prioritize their work

Effective prioritization is essential for maintaining productivity and achieving organizational goals. Yet, many managers may find guiding their teams through this process challenging.

We gathered insights from experienced leaders across various industries to illuminate this crucial management aspect. Here's a compilation of their strategies and approaches to help teams prioritize their work effectively.

Mathew Morgan, Director of Storytelling at Santa Clara University, emphasizes the importance of evaluating each project's impact. "If someone on my team is struggling with prioritizing projects, I sometimes ask what would happen if we didn't do one of the projects. What would the result be? Now, we're not normally in a position to drop a project outright, of course, but if the result is not catastrophic, it's probably something we can hit pause on for a week."

Morgan highlights a common pitfall: letting emotion and frustration dictate daily priorities. Instead, he advocates for a more analytical approach to determine the true importance of tasks. 

"Are we prioritizing this project because we want to get it off our plate, because it's satisfying a squeaky wheel, or because it's tied to a meaningful goal?"

Queen Muse, Communications Director, adds another layer to this discussion by stressing the need for clear goals. 

"In Communications, clarifying the desired outcomes is particularly important. Are we aiming to craft a certain number of materials by the end of the quarter or increase engagement by a certain percentage? Make sure your team understands why the assignments you give them are important. Help them understand the stakes or share the positive outcome they have the potential to achieve so they can be excited about the work they do."

Muse also warns against unrealistic expectations. "Don't expect your team to build Rome in a day. Start with your list of KPIs in order of importance, then break each into actionable sub-tasks, giving each a due date. Big hairy goals can be intimidating. Break them into smaller, manageable milestones, so your team can celebrate accomplishments."

Colleen Sabatino, a Fractional CMO with a decade of management experience, emphasizes the importance of individualizing the approach to each team member's work style. "It was different for each team member when it came to helping them prioritize work. Some benefit from blocking time on their calendar for specific tasks. Some wanted more regular check-ins where they provided an update and received feedback. Helping match these techniques to the individual work styles was beneficial."

Sabatino also highlights the value of team discussions about top priorities and overarching goals. "As a full team, we regularly discussed our top priorities/overarching goals and which types of projects directly mapped to them."

Jill Wetzler, a Fractional VPE and Executive Coach, offers a unique perspective in engineering. She warns against the dangers of individual prioritization over team prioritization. "I consider 'too many projects in progress' to be a bad team smell, and I'll typically do two things. First, I'll limit projects in progress to only two (maybe three) so that folks collaborate and we reduce bottlenecks. I also like to put all of the week's work into the sprint in priority order but without predetermined owners."

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Seth Kovanic, Senior Director of Web Strategy at Saint Joseph's University, takes a balanced approach. 

"For my team and me, I balance the work we are asked to do based on our strategic priorities for the year with projects that excite and challenge my team. Only some projects we are invited to participate in are something they'll be excited about. This is expected, as we can't always have rainbows and unicorns. 

However, on the other hand, I ask my team to work on projects that excite and challenge them. I find this approach allows for professional growth and gives them the freedom to pursue endeavors they may not otherwise have an opportunity to pursue.

Kovanic also allows his team a percentage of time each week, month, and year to work on a project of their choosing that isn't directly attached to any specific project or goal. 

"This could be something as simple as learning a new skillset or cross-training with a member of our larger divisional team. My only ask is for them to pick an initiative they are excited about and to commit to achieving the goal they define. Holding them accountable to their own goal builds confidence in their mindset and creates a stronger overall team. This strength creates a higher performing team and allows us to do even greater things in the future."

Finally, Russ Hatfield Jr., Customer Success and Post-Sale Revenue Leader, underscores the importance of connecting the dots. "We've got to connect dots consistently, persistently, again and again. Especially as CEO, you can't afford to let up on it. It helps force our own clarity and decision-making, it helps drive home the WHY behind the choices we make, and it helps everyone feel like their work really does matter and is moving the needles."

From clear goal-setting and breaking down large tasks to personalizing approaches and maintaining team-wide alignment, these tips provide a comprehensive guide to navigating the complexities of prioritization in the workplace.

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