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How to stop fire drills from playing havoc with your team’s prioritization

Tl;dr — Your team’s ability to triage fire drills from stakeholders directly impacts the success of your prioritization and goal planning.

Business today is fast & complex.

That might be the understatement of the decade — technological innovation, fast-paced competition, the need to manage paradoxical strategies, increased unpredictability of outcomes, globalization, the growing interdependence between sectors…

We could go on and on.

Teams are typically expected to manage their own internal priorities and projects, while also juggling other stakeholder requests, fire drills, and priorities. You don’t always have the agency to push back on these stakeholders, especially if they are executives within your company.

This can lead to teams feeling under-resourced and overworked — not to mention unrecognized and uncelebrated.

Aikido with Meteors

While writing about similar pain points, John Rae-Grant, an expert in strategy & org design who we regularly collaborate with, introduces the idea of Aikido with Meteors which gives teams the ability to plan and build for the future while being resilient and responsive to incoming demands.

Aikido with Meteors is the practice of finding your center as a team. In other words, becoming crystal-clear on your goals, and then becoming very good at noticing incoming meteors to then learn how to accept them in a way that accelerates you towards your goals.

For teams that don’t have prioritization mechanisms in place, adapting your workflows in dynamic ways can sound intimidating, painful, and expensive.

That’s why we’re in favor of non-traditional ways of implementing agile methodology like John Rae-Grant’s concept.

Prioritization in practice

At a $200 billion software company, we used Rae-Grant’s Aikido with Meteors methodology to guide an accomplished marketing team in implementing new prioritization practices.

The team was burnt out — they lacked agency over their day-to-day operations and struggled to connect their daily work to company goals.

Every project felt like it was dictated from higher up or simply kept the lights on which meant that team members rarely had the opportunity to showcase their creativity and innovation, both foundational reasons these employees were attracted to their roles in the first place.

When you’re running as fast as possible at all times, it’s hard to slow down to breathe, let alone slow down long enough to reprioritize & renegotiate your workload.

Triage and prioritize

It’s got to be said: being a dynamic team doesn’t mean you can do it all.

In order to be successful, you will need to be able to prioritize your workload and balance stakeholders through a triage process.

This takes commitment from every level of your org — executive leadership, leads, and ICs — but once agreed on and practiced is a simple, straightforward way to stop requests from blowing up your prioritization and goal planning.

Net new requests process

Intake form

First, set up a process to triage new requests.

Require the requester to fill out an intake form. This happens before your broader team sees the request. Not only does it require the third party to put thought into and parameters around their project before the work gets started, but it also allows you to guard your team’s time and energy, both key factors for innovation and productivity.

Your intake form should include:

LT Review

Once completed, this intake form should be reviewed by a manage who asks whether it aligns to business priorities & your OKRs.

If the answer is no, that information is relayed to the requester — and the project is either renegotiated or dropped.

If the answer is yes, the request continues through the net new process. First, perform a prioritization evaluation: Is this a must do? A should do? Something to add to the backlog? If it’s something your team must do, then assign resources and then reprioritize your other initiatives or projects to make room.

Weekly OKR stand-up

In addition to this lightweight intake process, consider implementing a synchronous review with your leadership team. This meeting would be a dedicated space for your LT to review new items & intake forms and have tradeoff conversations.

The output from these stand-ups would be a communication that relays decisions. Extra points if your LT includes a weekly prioritization snapshot that keeps the team up-to-date in real time.

Tradeoff evaluation considerations

Here’s a list of questions you can use to drive tradeoff conversations:

The payoff

Successful prioritization impacts so much of our business landscapes, from project success to company survivability, from efficiency and operational excellence to employee satisfaction.

According to Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez for Harvad Business Review, practicing prioritization “increases the success rates of strategic projects, increases the alignment and focus of senior management teams around strategic goals, clears all doubts for the operational teams when faced with decisions, and, most important, builds an execution mindset and culture.”

Meteor showers and fire drills are inevitable in today’s business world. Don’t let the next one destroy your team’s hard-fought prioritization efforts.

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