Thursday, July 14, 2011

Advice for Establishing Priorities

The “ committee on staff retention” was charged with studying the issues and making recommendations to the senior management team. What follows is an excerpt from a series of emails with the chair of the committee in which I offered some advice on working with this group. This particular exchange focused on how the committee could select its top priorities from among all of the recommendations developed by its sub-groups.

The chair’s email:

I'd like your advice on how to proceed with my committee on staff retention. I'm trying to push the work along and produce a list of recommendations and priorities.

The homework assignment from the last meeting is for each of the subgroups to finish their drafts and build a list of recommendations. Also, each individual is to bring a list of recommendations.

For the next meeting, I would like to bring together all of the recommendations and vote on the top priorities. As a process, I was thinking of asking the subgroups and individuals to submit their lists ahead of time. We could combine these lists in advance and then, at the meeting, use a computer projector to view the results on a screen. We would then use the meeting to revise and finalize our priority recommendations. I haven't figured out the logistics of this yet but it sure seems we'd save a ton of time if we had the lists already combined at the beginning of the meeting. Then we could let folks pick their top three short-term recommendations and their top three long-term recommendations.

What do you recommend we do here? What do you think about asking for the lists ahead of time? Revising during the meeting? Asking for top three short-term and top three long-term recommendations? Did I make any mistakes here? Did I forget anything?

My response:

Your ideas are all good. Here are some additional thoughts.

In general, it's unlikely that everyone will do their homework. I've worked for groups that had a very strong “we always do our homework on time” culture, but this is unusual. So be prepared at the meeting to supplement the list of recommendations that were received in advance.

Review and clarify the list of recommendations. This will be the first time everyone is seeing all the recommendations, so you should review them. Further, as written, the recommendations may not be self-evidently clear (even though they were perfectly clear to their authors). To select the “ top three,” each person has to first understand each recommendation. Before voting, ask everyone to examine the complete list of recommendations and ask clarifying questions. A thorough way to do this is to read out loud each recommendation, one at a time, and ask if there are any questions. In addition, ask if there is any disagreement. That is, there might be some objection or reservation about a recommendation, which is a more fundamental issue than its priority.

Conduct preliminary vote. It should be clear why you are asking them to prioritize the recommendations, and how that prioritization will be used. For example, it could be that you're going to include only the top priority recommendations in the report, or it could be that you'll include all of them in the report, presented in priority order, or the executive summary could highlight only the “ Top X Recommendations,” or it could be that you'll highlight the top recommendations in each category.

In selecting the “top three” there's a tendency for people to pick recommendations that were developed by their subgroup, so it's useful to acknowledge this potential bias and ask people to overcome it. Some specific mechanisms you could use are: asking them to pick a number of recommendations that is larger than the number of recommendations they offered, asking them to select no more than X recommendations from their own group's list, or asking them to omit their own group's list altogether and select the highest priorities only from the other groups' lists.

Discuss and clarify the results. After the “ top three” selection, have a thorough discussion and clarification of the results. This is useful, even though you did the previous clarification task. There's nothing like seeing the results of a vote to stimulate questions. Ask people to explain why they voted for things that got low votes. (The one person who voted for something may be the only one who really understands it, and after hearing that explanation, others may choose to switch their votes.) Give people the opportunity to “ lobby” for a particular recommendation, explaining its importance. As group members clarify the recommendations and provide additional information, change or supplement the wording.

Conduct a second vote. As a result of the preceding discussion, it is likely that some people will see the priorities differently and their votes will change. From the start, the group should understand that there will be a preliminary vote, discussion and sharing of additional information, and then a second vote. This is useful because it reduces the attachment that people have to the first vote and makes it easier for them to remain open-minded and change their vote the second time. Once this vote is completed, check to find out if everyone is satisfied that this represents the group's collective sense of the priorities, or if anyone needs something to be changed so that they can genuinely say these are the group's priorities.

Figure out the next steps. It's likely that there are other issues you will have to address, such as exactly how these recommendations will be presented in the report and who will prepare the narrative, and which information should go in the executive summary, body of the report, and appendices. Here are a couple of possible follow-ups.

Ideally, the recommendations should be structured in comparable and complete ways. You can try to get everyone to use the same structure as they initially develop the recommendations in their sub-groups. See an example for providing guidance below. If the recommendations are not complete or consistent, you can fix this during the meeting or afterwards.

There may not be agreement on what are the “ short” and “ long” term recommendations. Be prepared for someone to identify this issue, but you might not need to address it unless it comes up. One option is to fix this afterwards. If there is disagreement on which issues are short- and long-term, you can temporarily treat the task as “identifying the top six issues” and sort out the long and short-term ones later.

Explain your process before it starts. Here's my example for an agenda. I think it is valuable to review this at the start so people have an idea of what you've planned and can make suggestions to improve the process.
  1. Review and clarify the list of recommendations.
  2. Supplement the list with additions.
  3. Conduct a preliminary vote.
  4. Discuss and clarify the results.
  5. Conduct a second vote.
  6. Identify remaining issues and next steps.
As for developing recommendations, here are two slides that I often use to help steer groups toward developing useful recommendations and presenting them in a consistent manner. I don’t know if this particular set of guidelines is right on target for your committee, but I think a clear set of guidelines – and a couple of examples – is very useful.
And here’s a structure that you could use for presenting recommendations. I think it is easier for the reader if all of the recommendations follow the same logic. Given the nature of your committee’s charge, it might not be appropriate to include all of the details suggested by this form. For example, it might be useful to use who to name an organizational unit, but not a specific individual, and it might be premature to specify when, although if there are timing or dependency issues, they could be taken into account.