“That’s how we’ve always done it!” (A guide to using PTR)

If you’ve ever made a decision—from how you communicate important announcements to staff to what you ate for breakfast—you’ve used PTR*. PTR, which stands for preferences, traditions, and requirements, is a tool that can help you focus on what really matters so that you can get to better decisions. From an equity and inclusion standpoint, it can help you mitigate bias in hiring, delegate equitably, and gain more perspectives.

If you were the Organizing Director on a campaign, here are some things that might come up while planning a phone bank to turn out volunteers for an action:

It’s tempting to start with our preferences, which are often tied to our personal values and ethos, or traditions—including organizational ones (habits are hard to break!). However, we recommend that managers start from the bottom: get clear on the R, and then consider the preferences and traditions that might help or hurt your ability to get the results you need.

Great managers recognize that we all have a tendency to conflate requirements/outcomes with our preferences and traditions, and make a deliberate choice to isolate the three into their component parts by doing the following:

  1. First, articulate the requirements or outcomes. Preferences and traditions can sneakily become auto-pilot requirements. We see this happen often in hiring, when managers screen for qualifications that are proxies for must-have qualities, and in delegation, when managers focus on dictating how they’d like something done instead of the result they’re aiming for. The more we rely on preferences and traditions as a shortcut to getting to our required outcomes, the more we compromise on the diversity of experiences, perspectives, and approaches on our teams.
  1. Then, be explicit about your preferences and traditions and why they exist. There’s nothing wrong with preferences or traditions… except when unacknowledged preferences and traditions become embedded expectations that only you are aware of. Staff who are more like you or know you better are more likely to pick up on those expectations. Conversely, staff who are less like you are less likely to read the playbook in your head. When delegating work, share your preferences and traditions for how to get it done and, if it will offer helpful context, explain why.
  1. Finally, be flexible and seek other perspectives. Unlike bibs at a crawfish boil, preferences and traditions are not one-size-fits-all. Don’t be the dreaded micromanager who is honest but inflexible with their preferences and traditions to the point that they become requirements! Sometimes, you’ll need to let go of your preferences, or work with staff to revise existing traditions (however beloved) as your team grows in size and/or diversity, or if your operating context changes. Seeking other perspectives can help you separate your R from your P’s and T’s and surface approaches that help you best achieve the outcome you’re aiming for. (Of course, this doesn’t mean you accept every new idea—you still need to use your judgment to decide the best course of action. And, you should only agree to try out a new idea if you can truly be open to and supportive of it.)

In our example above, if the Organizing Director weren’t using PTR, they might only assign the task of organizing a phone bank to confirm volunteers, without being clear on the outcome they’re driving towards. Or, they might communicate the goal without sharing their preferences and traditions for how to achieve it, and then be disappointed if their staff unwittingly fails to plan the phone bank or opts for a different method altogether. With PTR, they could say, “We need to turn out 300 students. We usually do three rounds of confirmations to get us to that number, and I prefer using phone over text or email. What do you think?”  

Ultimately, your job is to manage with an eye towards the requirements. In order to do that effectively and equitably, practice distinguishing your P’s and T’s from your R’s, being flexible, and seeking other perspectives.

Want more? Check out some examples of PTR in action.

*Credit where credit is due: we got hooked on the idea of PTR because of this Fortune article.