If you are communicating more than five priorities to your staff, you may not be communicating as effectively as you’d like. Our suggestion – apply the Rule of Five – a maximum of five priorities for any given year. [a re-post from 2006]
Five priorities: too few?
Professional baseball/ basketball/ football players surprisingly don’t complain that the five fingers the creator left them are too few to grab a ball effectively and play. Musicians, sculptors, and painters don’t long (openly, in any case) for another finger or two to improve their technique. Just as five digits appear to be sufficient in many endeavors, we have also found the number five to be somewhat of a limit regarding what most busy individuals can process within their daily decisions.
More is not More
We often see an abundance of priorities and associated measurements – the implied logic appearing to be “if a few priorities are good, then a large number of priorities will be even better.” Not always. A CFO of a $300M business showed a page where he records 35 different weekly measurements, supposedly related to his role, but in reality only related to the lowest value, most easily measured components. This shotgun approach to strategy frustrated him and in his opinion confused his talented staff as they struggled to make sense of 35 equally important measurements apparently tied to 35 important priorities.
Three, too Few – Seven, too Many
Focusing on fewer priorities lets people more easily trace a connection to their daily choices. In the extreme, however, having too few priorities focuses significant attention upon the identified issues but then the difficulty becomes how your small list represents a complex work environment where individuals must maintain a balance between competing priorities. So on the one side, a large number of priorities acts like a fog, effectively hiding the relationship between what’s important and daily staff choices. On the other side, too few priorities can tend to distort or skew the balance of judgment necessary to deliver high-performance activities.
An Additional Caution
Where priorities are translated to multiple measurements, there is also a temptation for managers to focus exclusively on the numbers, and to stop observing and guiding the ongoing daily activities that create the actual business value the numbers are designed to reflect. The objective: expend management resources directing the real activities that add value, without giving staff the impression that the organization cares only about numbers.
Keep the list of major priorities to five. Each can contain a few, optimally three, related sub-categories. A larger list of priorities only limits the strategic traction you need to see, while too few priorities, misrepresents or overly-simplifies the balance of demands those performing high-value work must maintain.