Strategic Priorities

(Article originally published in “The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook” by Peter Senge et al (Doubleday Currency, 1994)

Alain Gauthier, an interdependent consultant formerly with McKinsey in Europe, works particularly in developing and coaching executive teams.  He developed “Strategic Priorities” as a next step beyond co-creating a vision: a means to turn visions into specific goals and a practice field for the team.

In most cases, unless four or five strategically consequential “chunks of work” are defined and approached, the organization may never achieve much of its vision at all.  For this reason, at the end of an intensive shared vision session, I always conclude with an exercise on strategic priorities.  By now, this group of ten to thirty people has developed a shared understanding of the vision they want to achieve and of the major gaps (or areas of creative tension) between their vision and the current reality.  They have also increased their capacity to dialogue about complex issues.  I ask them to bring that capacity to bear on identifying the critical gaps they want to address first, and the milestones that will show if they aredrawing close.  What they choose as strategic priorities will determine a significant amount of their work during the next nine to eighteen months.

A good strategic priority is both clearly linked to the shared vision, and capable of galvanizing commitment from the people in the team (if not the whole organization).  The team needs to say: “This intermediate goal deserves our best efforts.” Someone -an individual or a team- must be accountable for it, enough to replace (hopefully enthusiastically) some of their other work with achieving this new priority.  The “chunk of work” required can’t be too narrow; it must be systemically related to the rest of the organization’s vision.  But it also can’t be too broad; it must be distinct enough that a single person or task force can “put their arms around” what needs to be done.

These are actual examples of strategic priorities:

  • “By mid-2010, 80 percent of our managers will be trained in facilitating dialogue.” The team recognizes that if they don’t develop this capacity, they’ll lose an important opportunity for synergistic communication.
  • “Within eighteen months, our community relations efforts will have led to a 30 percent increase in mutually profitable local joint ventures.” This would be for a health care organization, which has resisted local cooperation for years, and only now sees its value.
  • “The number of consultant-days devoted to implementation projects (instead of simply making speeches and reports to clients) will increase by 50 percent over the next two years.” This came from a consulting firm that wanted to increase its effectiveness with clients.
  • “Complaints from one department about another will be down 25 percent in one year.” A medium-sized company beset with rival “chimneys” developed this strategic priority.

Note that all of these priorities are quantified or at least observable.  You can measure or estimate whether or not you have achieved them.  This grounds your vision in concrete results, for which you can establish action programs.  But focusing on practical measurement is also a creative tool.  Imagine, for example, a health care organization that wants to develop a better reputation for cooperatively improving the health status of its community.  How would it measure its progress? The dialogue on this subject is a great spur to inventiveness and imagination, as people begin to create new measures.

Note, too, that the measurements are not prescriptive; the senior manager does not impose them on the team.  The team develops them for themselves, searching for the most meaningful priorities: those crucial for the future of the organization, and where the  team  has  real  capacity to act.

Finally, the priorities are inter-functional or interdisciplinary.  There is no priority which says, “By 2010, the human resource director will have her department under control,” because the purpose is not to single out an individual, but to reframe a team’s vision in concrete, realizable goals that can be achieved only through synergy and cooperation among peers.  I always try to emphasize priorities that fit into areas where the organization has not paid enough close attention in the past, because this is where the greatest leverage tends to exist.

Once a team has agreed upon a set of strategic priorities, then its members have a set of milestones. They can conduct experiments to see if they can move closer to their goals, using the milestones to measure their effectiveness.  It is often useful to hold a second meeting six or nine months after the first, to monitor the team’s progress and modify, if necessary, the list of strategic priorities.  Additional people will have become involved, and new points of view will bring to light goals that were missed.  In the end, the strategic priorities will have become a practice field in themselves: a self-contained way to experiment with significant change, giving team members a way to monitor the results.

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