How to Identify Your Most Important Priority, Right Now!

CG Ep 82 YT
(This is an edited transcript of the Construction Genius podcast episode:

The advancing state of modern warfare in the late 18th century began to produce great numbers of injuries and casualties. This emphasized the need for more efficient caregiving to wounded soldiers on the battlefield.

In 1792, Baron Dominique Jean Larrey, a French doctor who would later serve as surgeon-in-chief to Napoleon’s Imperial Guard first implemented what would become known as the triage system to prioritize treatment according to the seriousness of injuries.

It’s a fast diagnosis system where the injured were filtered into three groups: dangerously wounded, less dangerously wounded, and slightly wounded. With the first category prioritized, not only did Larrey’s method save lives, but they also boosted troop morale.

His strict triage rules, based on the severity of condition and likelihood of recovery, ignored rank and nationality. It even saved his own life in an unexpected manner (more about that later).

In a time of war or crisis where resources are limited and time is of an essence, it’s
critical for medical facilities to prioritize who they treat. In the same way it is essential to learn how to look at the issues you face in your construction business and the array of possible initiatives that you can undertake, especially when you have limited time and resources.

As a business owner, you must figure out what’s most important right now. To identify your top priority.

Hence, in this article, I’ll teach you a step-by-step method for identifying your most important priority and building a simple, actionable plan for executing it.

This is the fourth and final article of our four-part series on the Triangle, a one-page planning process.

The first three parts are purpose, personality, and plan. 

The Triangle

The Triangle one-page planning process is like a compass. It is a simple and effective tool that you can use to aim and move your company in the right direction.

In today’s post about priority, we are going to cover three things:

  1. What is a priority and why is it important?
  2. How can you identify and clarify your priorities?
  3. Finally, we will talk about priority structure or how to build an action plan around your priority.

What Is Priority?

So let’s talk about what priority is and why it’s important. What does it achieve? Priority is actually pretty simple, right? It’s a thing that is regarded as more important. Your top priority answers the question, what’s most important right now? What must we achieve in the next period of time to be able to say that we accomplished it?

And when we say “right now”, this means that your priority should focus on 30, 60, or 90 days.

My personal favorite is a 90-day priority. It’s a real sweet spot. It gives you enough time to get some real work done. It doesn’t rush you too much to achieve something in a short period of time.

It also prevents needless discouragement when you fail to achieve what you really need to get done. This makes your priorities balanced with your overall strategic plan.

While a strategic plan may last from one to three years, again, your priority should be based on a 30, 60, or 90-day cycle.

The Importance of Prioritization

Now, why is prioritization important? It has something to do with your resources and human nature. We are all limited by our resources. These include time, money, and the energy of your people.

It helps to manage resources.
Focus becomes absolutely essential because of this. That’s the whole idea of triage in a medical environment. You have to prioritize who you are and who you treat in the same way.

You don’t have unlimited time, finances, or energy. As such, those three things must be marshaled and focused on what’s most important right now.

It boosts productivity and quality.
Human beings also thrive when they can concentrate. They accomplish much when there is the elimination of multitasking and a focus on what’s most important and then pursuing that. We simply do not do well in multitasking.

In fact, a study at the University of London found that participants who multitasked during cognitive tasks experienced IQ score declines that were similar to what they’d expect if they’d smoked a joint.

Now if you want to perform at that kind of level in your business, then continue to multitask. Think about that in terms of both your individual and overall company performance.

In the end, though, companies that focus are much more effective.

You see, when you are picking a priority, then you are saying no to one direction and you are saying yes to another.

As we’ve been talking about through this planning process, the choices you make in your business define its success. Life is all about the quality of those choices and the excellence of your execution.

One simply can’t do everything and you shouldn’t attempt to do so. Instead, you should spend time figuring out what’s most important right now and then executing on that.

It improves company culture.
More so, there’s a real sense of unity in their organizations when they prioritize and focus on the same thing.

The best leaders recognize that they are able to rally their troops around a specific outcome and focus them on that. This brings a sense of accomplishment to an organization. It provides momentum. It gives you the opportunity to hold people accountable for their execution.

It provides feedback.
Picking a priority and going after it is also how you can get feedback. You act, and you see what happens as a result of your action. You may then have to adjust your priority or adjust your plan associated with your priority.

It’s challenging to figure that out without focus. It will be challenging to discern whether what you’re doing is right or not, or even if you’re making any progress.

Thus, it is imperative in your business that you identify what these priorities are and make them the fop focus in your company.

How To Identify and Clarify Priorities

Moving on, let’s talk about how to identify and clarify your priorities.

The way you do that is through a combination of numbers and conversations.

Let’s take your construction business, for instance. There are three main areas of your business: you bid work, you build work, and then you bill the work. Each of these areas has metrics or numbers associated with that.

Numbers tell part of the story and they direct you to where you need to have your conversations. Those conversations will then help you to flesh out the numbers.

The numbers are the skeleton. The conversations provide the flesh and the blood that make up the whole person.

Thus, it’s very important, as a leader in your construction company, that you are able to gather your team together and through these numbers and conversations, identify what’s most important right now and then go to work on executing it right away.

How to Build an Action Plan

Anyway, here’s a quick recap. We’ve talked about what is a priority and why prioritization is important. We’ve also discussed how to identify and clarify your priorities through numbers and conversations.

We’re going to talk about the priority structure of how to build an action plan around your priority next. This is critical since it holds the power of the one-page plan.

As mentioned, the one-page plan sums up deep things in your business: its purpose, personality, and your strategic plan in a manner that people can understand. And now, we’re going to complete it with a statement of priority.

Doing so creates momentum and progress.

But what happens after you’ve identified what’s most important right now? You build an action plan around it. This action plan has three parts: the rally cry, the areas of fierce focus, and the critical numbers.

What Is a Rally Cry?
We’re going through the COVID-19 crisis right now, and one of the rally cries has been to “flatten the curve”

The idea is to reduce the number of hospitalizations through isolation, testing, tracing, and other further methods. In this way, the hospital system is not overwhelmed.

Flatten the curve.

That rally cry gets changed every now and then, but that’s the easiest one to remember.

Here are other examples. What’s Nike’s rally cry? What was their rally cry when they first started their business?

It was “crush Adidas.”

When the Allies invaded Normandy in 1944. Their rally cry was “beat Germany”.

I was working with one of my clients many years ago. We were going through this triangle, a one-page planning process. We’d identified their purpose, their personality, and their plan. It was crystal clear.

And then it was time to get onto their priority. After discussing it with the senior leadership team, they saw the numbers, they had the conversations, and you know what? They came up with their rally cry: Killing bad jobs.

They had three jobs on the books that had been dragging on a little bit. They were not moneymakers. They had to get those jobs completed.

In this light, why is a rally cry important?

A rally cry is important because it gives you clarity. It gives you focus. It gives your motivation.

Crafting Your Rally Cry
Your rally cry should be a short phrase. It shouldn’t be a sentence or a paragraph. It should be short, punchy, clear, directionally correct.

Plus points if it’s sexy and motivating. But if it’s not, that’s okay as long as everybody understands, and as long as you can build a plan to identify how you’re going to achieve it and who’d be accountable for that achievement.

You might be wondering who should be involved in crafting this plan. That would be the leadership team.

Do you remember that 80s music group, Men Without Hats? They came up with the song, Safety Dance. When you’re having a meeting with your leadership team and figuring out what the top priority for your organization is, everybody has to take off their departmental hat.

Have the estimating team take off their estimating hat, the project team take off their project hat, and the accounting team take off their accounting hat. Have them as a senior leadership team. They must show up with a sense of maturity and an understanding of the business.

Not everything can be a priority, and perhaps for a period of time, their department won’t be a priority. Hence, they have to be men without hats, focused simply on the success of the organization, regardless of how that might impact their particular part of the business.

World War II
During the Normandy invasions, the priority of the United States and Britain was focused on northern France. There was fighting going on all over the globe, including Burma, an Indian subcontinent.

Bill Slim was a general there.

I’ve done a couple of episodes on his leadership style. He was one of the best battlefield generals, after all.

One of the things that really set him apart was he didn’t have a huge ego. He understood that his area of focus, his field of campaign, the area of Burma, was not the priority for the allies.

Resources were taken from him that actually hurt his ability to fight in his particular region. But he knew that the top priority was in northern France, not the Indian subcontinent.

He understood that from a strategic point of view, his area of endeavor would suffer. But he was willing for that in light of the overall big picture and the top priority of the allies of defeating Germany in Europe.

Areas of Fierce Focus
So once you got that rally cry, the next thing that you’ll need are areas of fierce focus.

You can have your rally cry at the top of the priority part of the plan, while you’re going to have your areas of fierce focus underneath.

Simply put, these are the things that you need to do in order to achieve the rally cry.

You should have three to five areas of fierce focus that are going to drive the achievement. They need to be coordinated together for your priority to be a success.

In my experience of using this process with my clients over the years. I’ve concluded that three to five areas of fierce focus are best for the achieving of a rally cry. Again, keep in mind, what is the purpose of those areas?

It is to give accountability. It is, again, to give your teams focus. And as far as accountability is concerned, you’d want to assign one person to each area of fierce focus.

Assign it high enough up the chain of command so you can get stuff done, but not too high so that one person gets overwhelmed.

There should also be one person to report on how that area of fierce focus is being executed on a weekly basis.

Now, let’s go back to the example of my client who had the rally cry of killing bad jobs. They had three areas of fierce focus. The first one was to identify scope. Second, was to estimate costs to complete. Finally, their third fierce focus was production planning. All three coordinated together in order to achieve the rally cry.

Their top priority of killing bad jobs.

Your Critical Numbers
Once you’ve got your rally cry and your fierce focus, you can then move on to your critical numbers. These are linked to each area of fierce focus. The fierce focus drives the achieving of the rally cry, and the critical numbers tell you whether or not you are achieving what you need to achieve in those areas of fierce focus. There can be a number of different critical numbers. These critical numbers can even point out to a date.

For instance, fierce focus can be a metric. There are different types of metrics, so it’s best to have a scoreboard or a dashboard of metrics that are pertinent to your business.

There are leading and lagging indicators for metrics. Leading indicators give you a chance to correct a problem before it kills the lagging indicator. Hence, these indicators allow you to be proactive.

Lagging indicators, on the other hand, by their very nature force you to be reactive.

Let’s look at that in a little bit more detail.

Again, you need a really good metric to help you to understand how well you’re doing in your area. You need fierce areas of focus so that you can achieve your rally cry.

As an example, let’s say that a leading metric is safety training. If you say that you want to improve safety as a rally cry and you’re going to do some safety training as a result of that, then perhaps you’re going to do six safety trainings in the next 12 months.

That’s a leading indicator of whether or not you’re focused on safety. Meanwhile, lagging indicators for safety are things like injury, frequency, lost work days, OSHA, recordable injuries and your experience modification rate. All of these things are lagging indicators that tell you how well you’re executing on safety.

In terms of sales, for instance, a leading indicator is hit rate. How many projects are you landing? On the other hand, the lagging indicator is gross margin. We can land a bunch of projects, but if they’re not the right projects or we’re not executing them well, or if we don’t have enough margin in them, then the gross margin, the lagging indicator is going to tell us that.

And once you’ve identified the metrics that are going to be linked to the areas of fierce focus, you should have, again, one person responsible for that area in terms of accountability.

That person should be able to report on that metric on a regular basis. And in terms of that accountability, beware that you don’t overburden your heroes, as well, alright? We all have heroes in our organizationм—the folks who want to take on more and more work, and they’re pretty good at it.

There’s a huge tendency to over capacitate them, though, and this is when their effectiveness will begin to diminish.

There’ll also be other people who will spend all their time looking at the heroes and saying, “Yeah, just give that person work, he or she can take care of it. I don’t have to do my job”. No, no, no.

Make sure that the right person is assigned for accountability in each area of fierce focus, but you must also have the right number associated with them.
Again, let’s go back to the example of my client who had the “kill bad jobs” rally cry. To recap, here are their three areas of focus: The first one was to identify scope. The second was to estimate costs to complete. Finally, their third fierce focus was production planning.

The critical numbers of these areas were all dates. So they prioritized to identify the scope by September 30th (we were having this meeting in late August). They were going to do the cost to complete by October 14th. And they were going to do the production planning draft by October 14th as well.

Each area of fierce focus was assigned to an individual and it had a critical number. In this case, it was a date assigned to each area of fierce focus so they could drive forward on achieving the rally cry of killing bad jobs, which they did achieve by the end of that year!

It can be easy to think: “It’s really tough to prioritize because we have stuff to do across every aspect of our business” when talking about prioritization. And that’s true.

There are always things to do.

Remember, though, that the best businesses is to go back to that “men without hats” idea that I shared earlier. Their senior executive teams are able to come above the battlefield and all the stuff that’s going on in the various parts of their business and understand which part of the business needs particular attention.

For instance, as a result of some of the challenges associated with COVID-19, one of my clients recently shifted resources from their project management department into their estimating department because their priority was to generate more sales.

Another issue that comes with this prioritization is when leaders can’t get into an agreement about what’s most important right now. If you’re the owner or the CEO of your construction company, then let me just speak to you personally. Your job as the leader is to make decisions. You can’t make everyone happy all of the time. Some people may agree with your priority decision. Some may not.

Others may disagree on what you select as what’s most important right now, but you will do a disservice to all of your people and to your organization when you don’t make a decision.

The best leaders are able to make decisions and simply adjust if that decision turns out to be incorrect. The best leaders are willing for other people not to be happy. And the best executive teams are willing to disagree and yet commit to what the leaders decide is what’s most important.

So let me encourage you as the leader in your construction company. To make those tough decisions on where you’re going to focus on one particular thing, as opposed to trying to do everything all at once.

To Sum Up

Make sure that you are designing a simple plan around the question “What is most important right now?”

Like I said earlier, in my opinion, 90 day plans are excellent.

Make sure you have the rally cry at the top and have the three to five areas of fierce focus that drive the achieving of the rally cry. Make sure those are coordinated as possible and that you have critical numbers that will tell you how well you’re doing in executing those areas.

French doctor, Jean Larrey, had very strong principles. He developed the triage system so that the wounded were treated in order of need, regardless of rank or nationality. And while this did not endear him to all generals or administrators it saved his life, in the long run.

After the Battle of Waterloo, he was wounded and captured by the Prussians. Understand that he was a French doctor and he was actually quite close to Napoleon. The Battle of Waterloo was the end of Napoleon’s reign and so, he was about to be shot.

It was at this moment when the medic tying the blindfold recognized him. In other words, the Prussian medic recognized this French doctor so he was sent to the Prussian general, General von Blücher.

Apparently, Larrey had actually saved Blücher’s son’s life after a previous battle.

The general recognized him, and following dinner, Larrey was released with money and a military escort. Thus, his idea of triage and treating the wounded, regardless of rank or nationality, actually saved his life.

Anyway, let’s talk about next steps for you. I want to encourage you to read all of the previous posts of the Triangle one-page planning process. Get with your team and at the tip of the spear, so to speak, identify your most pressing priority. What’s most important right now? What do we need to get done in the next 90 days?

If you have any questions regarding this content, reach out to me and I will respond to you within 24 hours.

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