Changing and Conflicting Priorities

Choosing Priorities

One of the toughest parts of being a leader is deciding what to say YES to and what to say NO to …so that your team can actually accomplish the most important work instead of drowning in activity.

Reacting by saying YES to everything is not leading.

Trying to do everything is also not leading.
A must for success: Learning to NOT-try to do everything.

But saying NO is scary…

  • What if your NO causes a deal to be lost, or a customer to go away?
  • What if your NO makes an executive angry?
  • What if your NO creates a big problem for another group?
  • Or what if your NO simply disappoints someone and that makes you uncomfortable?


No leader gets YES or NO resource choices and decisions right 100% of the time.

But… you will likely fail 100% of the time if you try to do everything because you can’t say NO.

So the goal is to make clear decisions, say some NO’s, and be right most of the time.

The two mistakes I see leaders make is:

1. They say yes to everyone, so they are killing their team AND not getting the most business critical things done

2. They are unclear about what is important, afraid to make the decision themselves, so they leave it to staff to sort it out causing chaos, worry, and demotivation.

How do you choose?

Well, the trick here is not to just agree on something in the beginning, but to also agree on what you will do after the initial agreement when the world changes.

Real alignment is not just about all saying YES in the meeting.

Real alignment is when a decision is put into question because the world changed–and in that NEW moment everyone makes the same decision.

How do you get there?

Like so many of the things I talk about, the answer here is communication.

It’s learning how to have the right conversation about what you think you have aligned on so that the alignment will stand the test of time.

As an example, let’s take the common innovation dilemma…

You have 100% of your revenue coming from your current and old products and services, but the market and the competition has moved on, and unless you make a transition to something new, your business will not remain competitive.

The problem is that doing the new thing takes attention and resources away from supporting the current thing. And the new thing will ultimately compete with the old thing. So you need a strategy to get around the corner.

So you all go to an offsite and you agree that the new thing will exist 2 years from now, and by 3 years from now most of your revenue will come from the new thing.


But then…

A few months in a big new customer is wanting to buy a huge quantity of the old thing, it could be the biggest deal of the year, BUT, they want you to do special stuff to the old thing in which you are no longer investing, and to do so would take attention and resources off the new thing and risk the schedule.

OK. Now what do you do?

Let’s review what the answers are NOT (from above)

1. Say yes to everything, kill the team and risk both the customer and the new thing
2. Say nothing and let the team fight it out/figure it out among themselves

Both of these are an abdication of Leadership.

The importance of conversation

What is required here is to recognize that there is a threat to your agreed plan, or there is confusion about how to implement it — and to have a conversation about it.

At some point in the future you will need to say NO to that deal.
But right now, maybe there are good reasons to say YES.

With conversation maybe you can get the best minds together to come up with a smaller and more efficient action plan that will mostly satisfy the customer partway/enough but not cost so much to the new program.

By having a conversation you can create clarity that you are saying yes to this deal and this deal alone for a particular reason, and you are accepting a delay of x in the new program for a particular reason, this one time.

Or you can decide with clarity that you are saying NO to this deal to show your seriousness about the new program.

But you have to have the conversation, and you have to say something clear!

A brilliant mentor once told me that as a leader you can be right or wrong, but never unclear.

Uncertainty is expensive

Lack of clarity is one of the most costly and damaging things bad business leaders do.

When leaders are unclear, people are uncertain.

When people are uncertain, productivity grinds to a halt as they wonder what they should be doing.

When people are uncertain they can’t see what really matters so motivation and engagement decline.

When people are unclear they are afraid that they will get in trouble for making the wrong choice — fear stops productivity dead in it’s tracks.

The antidote to fear? … Conversation.

The solution to conflicting priorities

Never try to solve it alone.

Bring the right group of people together and have the conversation.

When you suffer alone, you actually cause the business to suffer.

You may think you are protecting your team by protecting them from unpleasant, disturbing information, but in reality you are torturing them.

I have always shared as much of the story and problem with my team as conceivably possible. I brought them in to be part of the solution to the toughest problems.

  • We talked about the alternatives and the relative benefits and risks of each choice
  • We talked about how we would manage the risks
  • And we talked about what types of changes and challenges are likely to come up that would put our new decision at risk, and trigger another conversation

Sometimes you need to stick to the plan with all your might, and other times you need to bend. The trick is to always be really clear abut which you are doing in any moment and why.

Getting real alignment…

Remember, (from above) Real alignment is not about all saying YES in the meeting.

Real alignment is when sometime later that decision is put into question because the world changed, and in that new moment everyone makes the same decision.

Everyone sees it coming, and feels safe to talk about it.

What this means is that when something goes awry, because of your conversations on alignment and what really matters, people are sensitive to the same triggers.

So they can understand the differences between tactical execution conflicts they need to work out on their own, but also recognize big issues which throw the program into risk.

So they can all see which things they need to raise the flag on, so you can deal with the risk as a team.

If you have made them feel safe to discuss the risk, and are willing to have the real conversation and make a clear decision, you are being a good leader.

Patty Azzarello

Patty is available to speak at your company, annual meeting, or customer event. She can also deliver a custom workshop on Leadership or Strategy Execution for your leadership team. Contact Patty.

Or if you would like some personal help on your own professional development, check out her Executive Mentoring Group. It’s filled with insights, resources and support to build your executive confidence, advance your career, and includes direct mentoring from Patty.


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Patty Azzarello is an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/Business Advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35 and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk)

You can find Patty at, follow her on twitter or Facebook, or read her books RISE and MOVE.

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