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Education competencies: Priority setting

This competency is one in a set of complete functional and behavioral qualities that, when fully realized, can help lead to professional success. View all competencies.


Spends his or her time and the time of others on what's important; focuses on the critical few and puts the trivial many aside; can quickly sense what will help or hinder accomplishing a goal.

Proficiency level

Level 1: Basic Level 2: Intermediate Level 3: Advanced Level 4: Expert
Acts upon the critical few tasks first Zeros in on the critical few tasks, and puts the trivial many aside Organizes groups to perform complex tasks and guides them in determining how to efficiently proceed Designs plans to accomplish complex and challenging tasks for groups or organizations
Participates in planning sessions with others to efficiently coordinate efforts Spends his or her time and the time of others on what is important Develops schedules for groups and creates focus Empowers participants by clearly communicating sequence and sense of tasks involved
Sets goals and plans his or her time to accomplish them Foresees roadblocks and senses what will help or hinder accomplishing a goal Foresees roadblocks and prepares creative alternatives Anticipates roadblocks, trends, and diversions and then prepares alternatives, taking event variations and organizational relationships into consideration

Overdoing priority setting

  • May let the trivial many accumulate into a critical problem
  • May too quickly reject the priorities of others
  • May have a chilling effect on necessary complexity by requiring everything to be reduced to the simple
  • May confuse simple with simplistic
  • May be too dominant a force on priorities for the team

Essential questions

To improve your proficiency, ask yourself the following questions on a regular basis:
  • What portion of each day have I set aside to create plans for myself and for my group?
  • Have I correctly determined the critical few tasks as primary targets to work on using data as well as my intuition?
  • Have I considered both short- and long-term objectives and ramifications?
  • Have I clearly communicated challenges and expectations to others in the organization?
  • Are the schedules I have instituted being met according to my expectations?
  • What is my contingency plan for potential roadblocks and snags in the process?
To avoid overdoing priority setting, ask yourself:
  • Am I neglecting things that seem trivial but that will accumulate and be detrimental later?
  • Am I oversimplifying things that are necessarily complex?
  • Am I forcing my own priorities on others without considering their input?

Interview questions

  • Tell me about a time when you kept yourself or others focused on completing high-payoff, complex tasks instead of getting sidetracked into trivial, lower-priority tasks. How did you zero in on the most critical tasks to accomplish? How did you keep yourself—or others—organized and focused?
  • It can be challenging to coordinate the efforts of multiple people and keep them focused. Describe a specific time when you had to do this. What approach did you use to get them coordinated? How did you keep them focused? What challenges—if any—did you overcome? What were the results?
  • Describe a situation in which you not only set goals or created a plan but also took time to proactively anticipate obstacles and create contingency plans. What challenges or obstacles did you anticipate? What contingencies did you develop? Which did you implement? What was the result?

Learning on the job

Learning on your own: These self-development remedies will help you build your skill(s).
  • Be clear about your goals and objectives: Use the annual plan and the strategic plan to understand the mission-critical things that must happen.
  • Using your goals, categorize your tasks: Determine what is critical, important, nice to do if there's time, and not central to our achievement. Apply this to your activity.
  • Watch out for the activity trap: Spend most of your time on one or two key priorities. Refuse to get consumed by the seemingly urgent little stuff.
  • Get help from others: Ask for and consider opinions and perspectives of others you respect.
  • When necessary, shoot your best shot: When decisions have to be made on the spot, make them.
  • Be careful not to be guided by just what you like or don't like: Use data, intuition, and feelings to set priorities.
  • Write down pros and cons for options when you get stuck: Weigh how your decision will effect your organization, both now and later. Consider costs, efficiency, and the effect on long- and short-term goals.
  • Be time-sensitive: Take time to plan and set priorities.
  • Make the hard decisions now: Realize that avoiding them now leads to more down the road, as well as missed opportunities.
  • Be sensitive to the time of others: Be efficient with others and use as little of their time as possible. Get to it and get done with it.
Learning from develop-in-place assignments: These part-time develop-in-place assignments will help you build your skill(s).
  • Assign a project to a group with a tight deadline.
  • Manage, teach, or coach a temporary group of inexperienced people.
  • Manage a cost-cutting project.
  • Build a multifunctional team to tackle a common problem.
Learning more from your plan: These additional remedies will help make this development plan more effective for you.
  • Learning to learn better:
    • Teach others something you don't know well. Pick something new, different, and unfamiliar.
    • Plan backwards from the ideal. Envision what the ideal looks like and the series of events to take you from here to there.
    • Study yourself in detail. Consider which of your likes and dislikes has prevented you from moving to a higher level of learning. Change what's necessary.
    • Commit to a tight timeframe to accomplish something. Establish a firm plan and stick to it.
    • Sort through information in multiple ways. Collect data and arrange it in various ways (chronologically, biggest to smallest, etc.) until the meaning is obvious.
    • Look for the simplest explanation; find the essence. Put aside complexity and determine the following: What is the most obvious thing the problem can be, what is the most obvious thing to do, what is the simplest explanation?
  • Learning from experience, feedback, and other people:
  • Get feedback from those in authority. Communicate that you are open to constructive criticism and are willing to work on issues they view as important.
  • Get feedback from your direct reports. Set a positive tone, and don’t retaliate if you don't agree.
  • Learning from courses:
    • Take a supervisory course. Review the common practices of effective supervision.
    • Encourage others to take refresher or preparatory courses. Communicate, and be supportive.

Recommended readings

  • Block, Peter.The Answer to How Is Yes: Acting On What Matters. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2001.
  • Bossidy, Larry, Ram Charan, and Charles Burck (Contributor).Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done. New York: Crown Business Publishing, 2002.
  • Collins, James C.Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t.New York: HarperCollins, 2001.
  • Drucker, Peter F.The Effective Executive. New York: HarperBusiness, 2002.
  • Hammer, Michael.The Agenda: What Every Business Must Do to Dominate the Decade. New York: Crown Business Publishing, 2001.
  • Kotter, John P.The General Managers. New York: The Free Press
  • Loehr, Jim, and Tony Schwartz.The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal. New York: The Free Press, 2003.
  • Stalk, George Jr., and Thomas M. Hout.Competing Against Time: How Time-Based Competition Is Reshaping Global Markets. New York: The Free Press, 2003.

Next steps

Copyright © 1992, 1996, 2001-2003 by Robert W. Eichinger and Michael M. Lombardo. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. This work is derived from the LEADERSHIP ARCHITECT® Competency Library developed and copyrighted by Robert W. Eichinger and Michael M. Lombardo for Lominger Limited, Inc.

This competency is one in a set of complete functional and behavioral qualities that, when fully realized, can help lead to professional success.