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David’s Leadership Articles

Help your team master rapidly changing priorities with skillful preparation.

Rapidly changing priorities can demoralize and frustrate your team if you’re not prepared to help them navigate the shifting landscape. Effective leaders prepare their teams for changing priorities, create structures to help the team shift, and advocate for their team to ensure their work is meaningful. These eight strategies will help you maintain your team’s energy and morale when goals change frequently.

  1. Set Expectations
  2. Create a Consistent Reliable Communication Strategy
  3. Advocate for Your Team
  4. Connect Priorities to Purpose
  5. Retire or Table Old Priorities
  6. Celebrate Effort
  7. Align New Goals with Critical Behaviors
  8. Create Space for Letting Go and Moving Forward

It was one of my earliest moments of workplace disillusionment. I was six months into a new job and my boss’s boss asked me to take on a major project. I was excited for the opportunity to add value and prove what I could do. I worked hard and gave the project my evenings and weekends until it was done.

When I returned the completed project to my boss’s boss (ahead of schedule and with better quality than anything he’d seen), he frowned. “Oh, we’re not doing this anymore. Can you do this instead?” and outlined the new goals.

No acknowledgment of my work. No recognition that I’d busted my tail to get it done. Just a new priority. No explanation. Nothing.

Frustrated doesn’t begin to describe it. I fumed. And I never fully trusted this guy again. (Also, I committed myself to helping leaders avoid these soul-crushing mistakes. So good did come of it.)

Whether you work in a fast-growing startup or a more established company that’s adapting to a rapidly changing world, priorities will change. Healthy organizations always adapt, innovate, and shift their goals. That’s life. But how you handle those changes makes all the difference in whether or not your team adjusts and engages with energy or gives up with futile frustration.

Leading Through Changing Priorities–Before the Change Happens

These first three steps take place before you communicate changes with your team.

1. Set expectations.

One of the most important parts of your communication is to let your team know that goals will change – and how frequently they can expect it to happen. Ideally, this starts in the hiring process. Some people enjoy shifting priorities. It keeps things interesting. For others, it’s maddening if they can’t finish what they start.

2. Create a consistent, reliable communication strategy.

The faster the change in your business, the more important it is to have a consistent, reliable communication strategy. We’ve seen leaders who leave changing priorities to instant messaging threads or word-of-mouth. Chaos and frustration are predictable.

Instead, if you can’t give the team predictable goals, give them the confidence of knowing exactly how they’ll know – and when.

3. Advocate for your team.

As priorities shift and your leaders ask you to change course, engage with them about the decisions. Can you add context to help them understand the impact on the team and other priorities? Help them to examine the tradeoffs. Often, leaders don’t have all the information and you can help them improve their decisions.

If they decided and it’s final, you can also advocate for your team by ensuring that you understand the bigger picture. When people move quickly, they can forget to connect what they’re asking to why it’s important. Ask how the changed priority fits into the larger goals and how it will help achieve them. You’ll need that information when you speak with your team.

Leading Through Changing Priorities–After the Change

These next five steps happen once the decision is final and it’s time to work with your team on the new priority.

4. Connect priorities to purpose.

As you communicate the change, connect “what” to “why?” There is a reason that things will change. Help them connect to and understand the bigger picture.

5. Retire or table old priorities.

You can help your team transition between shifting priorities with an intentional stop-doing or pause-doing routine. If the previous goal is going away, be clear about that. For example: “This was our goal. It no longer is. We can let it go.”

This process of consciously retiring old priorities can help your team avoid the mental drag that comes from open loops and unfinished projects.

There are times, however, when you won’t set aside a goal–you just have to pause working on it while you focus elsewhere. In these cases, it can be helpful to have a system where you and your team document progress made, next steps, and lessons learned. Then, when it comes time to pick up the project again, it will be easier for the team to get moving.

And–every 4-6 months it is useful to review these paused projects and ensure they are still relevant and need to be done. If not, retire them so they aren’t dragging down your team.

6. Celebrate effort.

An important part of your “stop-doing” routine is to intentionally close a task or project by asking the team what they learned and what they can carry into future work. Celebrate their work, what they learned, and the progress they made.

This creates a formal ending for the unfinished goal. You can have fun with this and create team ceremonies that honor the work they’ve done and the process of moving on.

7. Align new goals with critical behaviors.

As you introduce new priorities, be sure they aren’t just abstract goals. Does everyone on the team know what success looks like–both in the big picture and in what they observably do day-to-day that will lead to success?

8. Create space for letting go and moving forward.

Change comes with emotion – and changing priorities are not exempt. Your team will be able to move forward with more energy and creativity when you pause and give them room to process the change.

It doesn’t have to be a tumultuous grieving session. You might say something like:

“I know everyone worked very hard on that last project and we would have liked to see it through to the end. I know I would have enjoyed seeing that too. So, I want to pause and acknowledge what we learned. All the wins we had …

“Now, let’s take a deep breath …

… and look at the future with this new goal. Here’s what we’re doing. Here’s why it matters. This is what success looks like. Let’s talk about how each of us contributes …”

 

Your Turn – How Do You Address Changing Priorities?

Leading through changing priorities requires preparation and nimble leadership to maintain your team’s focus and morale. I would love to hear from you—have you seen, or do you have, a fun or cool way of acknowledging the past while changing focus?

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David Dye helps human-centered leaders find clarity in uncertainty, drive innovation, and achieve breakthrough results.  He’s the President of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. He’s the award-winning authors of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and hosts the popular Leadership without Losing Your Soul podcast. David is a former executive and elected official. David and his wife and business partner, Karin Hurt, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

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