No Starving Children? The Shocking Truth About Prioritization.


Prioritization means making decisions that focus energy and resources on a few things that are at the top of the list, and starving things that are lower in the list.

The most important aspect of prioritization is the concept of starvation. In the context of prioritization, starvation refers to the lack of attention or resources given to tasks lower down on the priority list. By definition, as we allocate more resources to higher-priority tasks, lower-priority tasks get starved of these resources.

I use the term “peanut buttering” to describe ineffective organizations led by people either afraid of starvation or lacking fundamental prioritization skills. The leaders in these organizations may talk about priorities, but when I dive deep, I discover dozens of “priorities” with resources and energy spread (like peanut butter) across all of them. Their teams regularly complain about being in fire-fighting mode and are unable to distinguish between urgent and important tasks.

World-class leaders and organizations have honed their prioritization skills and are ruthless in driving starvation. The behaviors I see in these orgs include quick decision making, fire-drills being exceptions to the norm, and out-sized results delivered on time. I also see the withering, dead, husks of projects and tasks that were correctly starved along the way being long forgotten.

Tenets for Effective Prioritization (Unless you Know Better Ones…)

  1. Customer Value First: Efforts that deliver the most value to the customer should have the highest priority. This tenet ensures that the prioritization process is always focused on customer needs and expectations.
  2. Embrace Starvation: Recognize that effective prioritization means some things will be starved of resources. This is not a failure of planning, but a necessary consequence of focusing on what’s most important.
  3. Priorities Are Not Set in Stone. They should be regularly reviewed and adjusted based on changing circumstances, new information, or feedback.
  4. Limit the List: Keep the list of priorities short. A long list of priorities can lead to a lack of focus and dilution of resources. More than three or four is a red flag.
  5. Long-Term Vision: Priorities should align with long-term goals and objectives. Short-term tasks might be urgent, but they should not overshadow efforts that contribute to long-term success.
  6. Actionable Now: Priorities should be actionable in the present. If a task is consistently deprioritized, it may be a sign that it’s not truly a priority.

These tenets provide a framework for effective prioritization, guiding individuals and teams to focus their efforts on tasks that deliver the most value, adapt to changing circumstances, and maintain a long-term vision.

The goal of prioritization is not to complete every task, but to ensure that the most important tasks are given the resources they need to succeed. This inevitably means that some tasks will be starved of resources, but this is a necessary trade-off in the pursuit of the most important objectives.

I coach leaders and teams on the skills required to be effective at planning and prioritizing. I hold free and open office hours where you can get started.

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