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Enforcing Your Top Priorities

Ian Small

I want every individual in the company to know how to respond when a colleague asks for help. So I develop and share a list of the company’s five most important activities over the next 60-90 days. If the task is a top-five item - or an item ranked higher in the top five than the activity you're already working on - then you stop what you’re doing and help.

To develop the list I think about the company's calendar, milestones and key activities over the next three to four months, and send a draft list of the top seven priorities to the management team. If they agree with the list and order, we just drop the bottom two items. If they don't, we hash it through until we agree.

I talk about the list at all hands and team meetings, so everyone in the company has the opportunity to ask questions, and I send the followup by email so everyone has it. I refresh the list about every 45 days. Items should cycle off regularly. Otherwise they’re not really a short-term priority -- they're just part of the air the company breathes. Leave those items off.

You get a bunch of fringe benefits from applying this discipline:

  • People usually understand the big picture. The priority list means everyone knows what’s most important to our executional success over short periods of time. It’s all about execution.
  • The list forces you to be brutally honest with yourself - and with your team - about tactical priorities. People appreciate that.
  • Ruthless prioritization encourages department heads to really think from a company perspective.
  • Refreshing the list regularly gives you an opportunity to communicate and evaluate progress, and score the company's ability to execute as a team on a class of activity which doesn't reduce easily to a dashboard metric.
  • The Top-five list doesn’t scale infinitely. It’s best for a company with one product or product line. If you have two distinct offerings that run fundamentally independently, think about having separate lists.
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