Tackling the tough stuff comes down to priorities and timing
Let’s be honest. At the place you work, hundreds of things could be better. And if you look at the national or global level, it’s easy to come up with a slew of issues that need addressing—inequality, climate change, disinformation, you name it.
It’s often easier to see what’s wrong when you’re far removed from the seat of power. Solutions, too, seem clear. And so the question arises:
Why haven’t we taken care of that stuff yet?
Perhaps you see where I’m going with this. It’s great to identify what’s wrong, but problems are often more complex than they first appear. Being able to successfully tackle issues, big or small, has everything to do with 2 things: priorities and timing.
We all know the feeling when something suddenly gets top priority. Or when our priorities shift at work because a given project’s no longer urgent. Priorities are flexible and fluid. It’s fascinating to me how even the biggest, most complex matters can be clarified using a simple list of priorities.
Take the issues that matter most to the public. In the run-up to the US elections last month, for instance, PEW Research surveyed registered voters (RVs) and asked them to prioritize their concerns. Here’s how voters responded:
Top issues for voters in the midterms
Want attention for your own problem or proposed solution? Then it’s a good idea to keep current public priorities in mind. It won’t be easy to convince the country of your new plan for the arts, for instance. But the time’s ripe for your ideas on education, democracy, or the economy.
These sweeping overviews can also be created on a smaller scale: for a single product, organization, or team. What’s the most urgent issue at hand? When working toward a certain goal, what needs to happen first?
You should be able to list priorities for yourself (or your team or your organization) at any given time. Stick to 3, 4, or 5 bullet points: What has to be done first? What moves you forward? What helps the organization?
Something that helps me is to write down not only the things I want, but also the things I don’t want. Ruling out options gives you much-needed headspace. You no longer have to look into those possibilities.
Then there’s timing. I consider Abraham Lincoln to be the king of timing. I’ve mentioned the book Team of Rivals before in this newsletter, and I’m bringing up the US president again now for his skill at not doing things (or not quite yet).
Salmon Chase was one of the president’s political rivals, and Lincoln appointed him to his cabinet. When Chase didn’t get his way, he submitted his letter of resignation. Repeatedly. Meanwhile, Chase was secretly plotting a presidential run of his own. Not an ideal situation.
The president’s advisors urged him to accept Chase’s resignation, and of course it would have given the president a good deal of personal satisfaction to let the man go. But Lincoln knew it didn’t advance his larger aims, and so he refused. Repeatedly. He chose to keep rival Chase close, finally accepting Chase’s resignation in the fourth year of his presidency.
Rarely are we that strategic and forward-thinking in our choices.
Lincoln also had a nose for when he should share his plans and when he should keep them to himself.
In the early years of his presidency, Lincoln was told that his approach to abolishing slavery was too soft. His was a carefully-considered position: Lincoln knew that a radical anti-slavery stance would appeal to his followers, but it would alienate others, getting in the way of actually achieving this important goal. As pressing as the issue was, he would have to be patient.
Thinking about our own timing and priorities
Our plans and ambitions may not be nearly as big or important, but we can stand to benefit from honest Abe’s tactics. Perhaps there are issues where you’re far ahead of the curve. In that case, firmly stating your position and refusing to budge doesn’t do much to motivate others. The team has to work too hard to catch up.
Of course there are times when you’re called to stand up for a position of yours that you know will be met with resistance. An honest, radical voice is fresh and powerful and can make people think twice about their own standpoint. But to make real change happen, you need to get people on board. Being right is not enough. You have to be recognized as being right in order to move things forward. You’ll sometimes need to adapt your position to make it resonate more widely.
Whether you’re leading a team or trying to convince management to go for that great idea of yours, make sure that your priorities—what you want to do and in what order—are crystal clear. Look at how your own priorities line up with those of the organization. And consider the timing: asking to build out your team right after a major reorganization isn’t likely to work. How does your message come across today to the person you’re trying to reach?
Have a good week,