Getting Good at Prioritizing
As a startup, we have a small team and limited resources to work on problems where the solution is not obvious and success is not guaranteed. When working on Touchpoint, our new project management tool which complements our consulting services, every feature we build and every test we run is a precious use of our limited time and resources. This probably sounds pretty familiar to school administrators across the country — lots to do with limited resources to get it done.
Let's talk priorities. Good prioritization requires focusing on the real problems, the things that move the needle. As a team, you can only focus on your top two or three goals, and ideally, may focus only on one to maximize your chance of success. Building habits and even a culture of prioritization is often not a spontaneous effort; it needs to be built and fostered over time. Through examining what is most important, prioritization creates the focus necessary to build a shared vision and define a strategy that evolves and adapts to account for the uncertainty inherent to addressing complex problems. Here are three steps to help your team get good at prioritizing.
- 1. Focus on Less and be Bold
When prioritizing, don't be seduced or co-opted by too many small problems. Have the discipline you need to solve the big hard problems first and foremost. The big hard problems, the ones that create real change, are usually the most frightening of all, so it is easy to de-prioritize them, make an excuse. Focusing on one or two main priorities can allow teams to dedicate the time and reflection necessary for solving difficult challenges.
For example, Superintendent Rich Merlo at Corcoran Unified in California was facing a "perfect storm" of competing priorities, such as a new curriculum adoption, 1:1 rollout, new digital content, and new state accountability standards. Rather than tackle each of those projects individually, he opted to align them to an overarching philosophy of personalized learning as priority #1. This allowed the district team to understand the overlap between different initiatives when examined against a standard objective — i.e., the rollout of personalized learning. By focusing on a single overarching learning philosophy, Merlo was able to create clarity around what steps needed to be taken first by his leadership team.
- 2. Let Frameworks Inform Action
A culture of prioritization also seeks frameworks for tough decisions when they give the whole team autonomy to judge and act on the priorities. When decision-making frameworks make clear what kind of actions do or do not align to main priorities, they allow team leaders to provide honest and justified yes/no responses to requests.
Having a clear framework for making company decisions is just as important as transparently discussing its results. One of my favorites frameworks to understand the importance of potential actions is "10/10/10." How important will this be 10 minutes from now? How about 10 months from now? How about 10 years? 10/10/10 is a simple framework to help you make decisions fast.
Education Elements has established our own Personalized Learning Implementation Framework, for example, to help our partner districts establish their priorities. Like good frameworks, it is not a check-off list but guiding principles that are never truly completed. Ed Elements’ framework is designed to provide educators with ongoing areas of focus to ensure success as they make the shift to personalized learning.
- 3. Make Priorities Actionable
Have a defined priority already? Good. Next make sure your team can 1) build a shared vision, 2) identify the first goal, the target condition and the current state, and 3) define clear actions or next steps.
When creating a vision, think long-term and make sure that your team can repeat the vision with common language. The next challenge is determining the first goal to be achieved on the way to your long-term vision. Your first goal will help focus your team on the most immediate steps of your vision.
The target condition is what the world looks like when the challenge is solved. Compare the target condition to your current state. This thinking helps you break down the challenge into smaller problems that can be measured, quantified, and tackled along the way. Once feel you feel good with your breakdown, it's time to put together a strategy of action.
The Education Elements product I work on, Touchpoint, is designed to help with this third step. It frames personalized learning as a district-wide collaborative effort that is carefully planned and designed to achieve a particular goal, with a roadmap based on Education Element's methodology to help the team monitoring their progress. In Touchpoint the district team has quick access to what needs to be done when, what's coming next and how they should prepare for it. Goals, decisions, designs, meetings, and how they relate to each other, are all examples of information that can be found on Touchpoint. With quick access to resources curated and personalized to your implementation, Touchpoint is the single source of truth for district knowledge and decision records.
Similarly, your prioritized strategy should be robust and include more actionable steps about your design goals and scenarios that, together, put the team in the direction of the desirable outcomes for the students.
MSD Warren Township is another district that made personalized learning a top priority. After a three-month process of defining vision, goals and roadmap with the Education Elements team, Warren started designing and implementing blended learning models in the fall of 2015. After articulating a clear vision for personalized learning the commitment and engagement of school and district teams was beyond imagination. With a clear strategy and roadmap, schools knew what was expected of them and the support they would get and were empowered to lead a transformation in teaching and learning customized for each site.
Personalized learning at MSD Warren Township has become more than an initiative — it's become a lifestyle. The entire district is aligned behind the same belief “We are all learners who deserve personalized learning experiences to become leaders who have the skills to be successful in life and create solutions for a better tomorrow.”
In summary, prioritization keeps your team with eyes on the prize, focused on the hard problems, and creating real change. Saying NO is hard, and hearing NO is even harder. That's why the culture of prioritization needs to built and fostered by all team members, not a boss. Once you have your priorities in place, building a strategy to uncover what will help you achieve your district priorities is the way to create action. And don't forget: All action needs to be focused on a well-communicated shared vision.