Monday, July 18, 2016

What's Your Number One Priority?

I tried an experiment at our staff meeting last week.

Like a lot of organizations, we have a weekly staff meeting, where everyone gets together around a table (eleven of us in-person and two more on the phone and webcam), and we talk about what's important this week. Who's got a deadline? Who needs help with something? Who's got a question for another colleague that they haven't otherwise had a chance to ask?

Except, most of the time, these are not actually the things we talk about at our staff meetings. Instead, as we go from person to person around the table, we hear report after report of everything we have been working on. Not what we're going to do, but usually, what we've already done. And when it is something we plan to do, it's usually not something we need any help with. We all, it seems, have a laundry list, and we all think it's important to share it with others at our staff meetings.

Except it's not. That's not what our staff meetings are for. We spend the other thirty-nine hours of the week working on all those tasks, most of it in productive isolation from one another. Isn't there something else we're supposed to be discussing in the one hour we've reserved for team interaction and discussion?

There is. Hence my experiment. I told everyone that we were going to go around the table like we traditionally did, but this week the only thing I wanted people to describe was whatever their number one priority was for the week ahead. Nothing we did last week. Not everything we planned to do this week. Just the one thing we each most needed to get done in the next couple of days.

What happened next was fascinating.

First, everyone followed the instruction. I led off, giving others some time to think, but each, it turn, came forward with a single project or task. No one tried to squeeze in the usual laundry list.

Second, the things were heard were not the kinds of things we typically heard discussed at our staff meetings. There were other things--important things, evidently--that people had not been including on their laundry lists.

Third, the items, by and large, were closely associated with our success metrics. I've written about those before. We have a series of high-level metrics, typically not associated with any one specific program, that we are supposed to aim all of our programmatic activities towards. They spell success, not for an individual, but for the overall organization. And the number one priorities described by each staff member, by and large, were things that were calculated to help us achieve at least one of those metrics.

And fourth, people volunteered to help others with their number one priorities. Instead of sitting quietly waiting for our turn to speak, the brevity and obvious importance of what each of us offered led directly to brainstorming around obstacles and offers of assistance. Unless I was imagining it, we began to act like a cohesive team focused on a finite number of achievable objectives.

All in all, I'd have to say, a pretty successful experiment. I hope we can repeat it next week.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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