How to Prioritize Objectives
Written by Jocko Willink
December 28, 2021
Say your construction company is operating 10 different job sites simultaneously. How much do you think the foreman at site A knows about the schedules, timelines for execution, or specific resource requirements at sites B through J?
A little bit? A lot? Nothing at all?
The answer, all too often, is closer to the latter, with negative results that run the gamut from resource hoarding to decreased employee morale. And while some degree of tension between different job sites may be inevitable in the dirt world, organizational leaders who more effectively communicate the big picture, share information, and prioritize objectives can channel it toward better outcomes.
Lack of visibility leads to siloed urgency.
Ever spotted an unused piece of equipment — say, a crane — on one job site, known that you need it at the job site down the road, asked if you could borrow it and been told "no" by the foreman in no uncertain terms?
It's an all-too-familiar scenario for people in the dirt world, and it can be exasperating. Is the construction industry a redoubt for hoarders? If not, what gives?
In reality, the problem here is twofold: lack of visibility, leading to a siloed sense of urgency. Put yourself under the hardhat of that foreman for a moment and it's easy to see both how and why these things play out.
- Lack of visibility: You're unaware of other projects, not to mention how they could impact shared resources, so you're laser-focused on your own. As far as you're concerned, it's the only one that counts.
- Siloed urgency: Operating with a siloed sense of urgency, you want to ensure every resource, tools and machine is available to you and your team. Think you'll need, say, a crane at some point in the next three weeks? Then there's going to be a crane onsite every day for the next three weeks, and nobody is going to borrow it on your watch.
This is how what looks like resource hoarding happens in the dirt world, and, as Willink is careful to point out, it's a product of rational decision-making. "There are natural tensions between different job sites," he observed. "There's going to be a person who wants a crane at one location, and someone else who wants the crane at another location, and they both want that crane for the right reasons."
"Right" as those reasons may be, however, when viewed from a business standpoint — from the lens of, say, strategic planning or resource optimization — they also leave a lot to be desired. So what's an organizational leader in the dirt world to do?
Two key benefits of effectively prioritizing objectives.
Willink acknowledges that it's relatively easy for organizational leaders to allow gaps in visibility to take hold. For a lot of leaders, it happens inadvertently. "We think that everybody knows what's clear to us from our position," he explained, "and that because we can understand it, everybody else can understand it."
In reality, of course, that might not be the case.
So the only corrective, in Willink's eyes, is for leaders to more effectively prioritize objectives, and more clearly communicate them to the team. Borrowing from his military experience, he broke down two key benefits of such top-down knowledge-sharing in the dirt world.
1. Knowledge-sharing bolsters morale.
"When I was a young guy in the SEAL platoons and we'd go out on patrol," Willink recalled, "they would shuffle you around to different jobs, and sometimes I'd be a guy that was rear security at the end of the patrol. So I'm the last guy on the patrol. It's nighttime. We're going for miles and miles. After 30 minutes or an hour, I don't know where we are. I don't know where we're going. I don't know where the next checkpoint is. I don't know how far it is to the target. I have no idea what's happening. And this is miserable for me, because I have no comprehension of my own destiny."
Willink sees a clear takeaway for organizational leaders in the dirt world: Your team members, like the foreman in the above example, don't want to be clueless about higher-level strategy. On the contrary, they'd rather be able to plug their own coordinates into a map of the big picture. But you have to empower them to do so, and they can channel their energies in the service of the greater good from there.
As Willink recounted, "Once we explained it to the foreman, 'Hey, I know you're going to need the crane on Thursday, but we can get this other job done and have it for you Monday and Tuesday. We'll get it moved over the weekend and then it'll be here for you, and that way the whole company can be taken care of.' Does the guy then come back and say 'No, screw them, I don't care about them'? No. He says, 'Okay, let's make it happen.'"
2. Communicating priorities increases operational efficiency.
Beyond boosting morale, empowering team members in this way can significantly increase operational efficiency, according to Willink. Deliberately or not leaving people in the dark, by contrast, he argues is "tactically unsound."
Here's Willink: "Other times, I would be out on patrol, and I would be the point man or the radio man. And now I'm standing right next to the platoon leader, and the platoon leader is telling me, 'Hey, we have targets another two miles away,' and 'We're going to take a break in 15 minutes' and 'There's a water source that we're going to pass by.' So I have all of this knowledge. And guess what? Now, not only is my morale high, because I understand what's happening, but I'm tactically in an infinitely better position to support the platoon."
In the dirt world, likewise, Willink observed that "it doesn't take a Herculean effort to get this done, to say, 'Hey, we've got this job over here, and they're falling short on this critical part of the path, so we need to make sure we get resources there, and here are those resources.'"
But, he added, "It's our job as leaders to make sure everybody understands what those priorities are."
More effectively prioritizing objectives, and clearly communicating them to the team, should be a mandate for organizational leaders in the dirt world going forward. In Willink's view, after all, the benefits are clear enough:
- Goodbye lack of visibility (and the siloed urgency it encourages)
- Hello improved morale and greater operational efficiency
In fact, Willink would answer the broader question — "Should the people inside of an organization know what the priorities are?" — the same way, regardless of whether "it's a construction company, a finance company or a Navy SEAL platoon."
His answer? "Absolutely." And in light of what we covered above, it's not exactly hard to see why.
Written by Jocko Willink
December 28, 2021