5.5 min read

Whether you’re a staff member, project leader, or director, one of the most important skills you may need in the current terrain is the art of saying “no” (to some things) so you can make room for others. In other words: how to reprioritize.

The concept sounds simple—decide what to focus on and let go of the rest (either for good or just for now). But letting go can be hard, especially when you had good reasons to choose a project or initiative in the first place. If you haven’t already, it’s time to let go of some prior commitments and add in new ones that respond to the changing terrain—whether you’re facing higher than expected staff turnover, needing to invest in mental health supports for students or staff, or making room for a new strategic campaign.

With your goals in mind, you can build the flexibility you need to reflect, reinvest, and redesign your work in a post-pandemic world.

Here are six tips for doing it successfully:

1. Renegotiate with your stakeholders.

Most likely, your priorities overlap or intersect with the work of others and reprioritizing will have an impact on them. If that’s the case, you’ll need to get input, buy-in, or approval. In most cases, you’ll need to communicate directly with your stakeholders. When you do this, make sure to 1) share your context and 2) make a proposal.

For example, you might reach out to a funder and say, “Hi Kevin! With everything going on, we’ve been hearing from our clients/community/members that what’s needed right now is XYZ. We’re also under strain from Joanna being out because her mom is sick. I know we had previously planned on doing ABC, but I’d like to check in with you about our options and hear about your funding priorities. We propose that we focus on X and Y for now, and return to A and B after the crisis.” There’s a chance that nothing will change, but you’d be surprised at how far you can get just by initiating the conversation.

You also might need to have a version of this conversation with a colleague: “As you know, Ashley has been out, and we have to make some hard choices. Right now, we’re prioritizing the new online training, which means we won’t have as much capacity for the social media campaign. Instead of doing a five-week campaign, we’d like to pare it down to two weeks. How does that sound to you?” Use our Pros, Cons, Mitigations Tool for help thinking through options—on your own or with stakeholders.

2. Normalize renegotiation and make it okay to let go.

Conversely, if you’re a manager, it’s your job to make sure that your direct reports are focusing on what’s most important, which means they may need to renegotiate with you. But, whether it’s because of differences in identity, power dynamics, and/or the series of bad days you had recently (yes, people noticed), it might not be so easy for them to approach you about renegotiating. Don’t just sit around and wait for them to initiate.

People with more marginalized identities or who have less privilege may feel extra pressure to maintain—or even add to—their normal workload. Some staff may feel the need to “prove” themselves or “earn” their place, especially if there are any concerns about organizational finances or potential layoffs. Reinforce and model that it is not only okay to let go of or renegotiate priorities, but that you expect it so that your staff members are focusing on whatever is most important now.

Systematize renegotiation by asking explicitly in your check-ins: “What can you deprioritize? What can we adjust, pause, or cancel?” We’ve baked this conversation into our check-in agenda template.

3. Gold star or good enough?

Reprioritizing isn’t just a binary “do it or dump it” decision. It’s also about the bar you set. For the goals you’re committing to focus on, ask yourself and your team: where can good enough be good enough? What level of success is needed and can be reasonably expected, given our current resource and capacity constraints? What must we deliver for our stakeholders right now? Consider adjusting your timeline, narrowing the scope of work, or even assigning a different owner. (To be clear, this isn’t about passing off low-quality work as “good enough”—it’s about establishing the minimum bar for success and not holding yourself or your team members to a standard that’s unrealistic for this context.) For example, if you’re preparing for a board meeting, a “gold star” might be sharing a 10-page booklet that’s error-free and graphically designed two days before the meeting. “Good enough” would be sharing a 2-page document with bullet points on the morning of the meeting, and in this context, that might be fine. Now is an excellent time to really examine your requirements versus your preferences and traditions.

4. What are you running toward?

It’s natural to feel a sense of scarcity, but reprioritization isn’t just about setting aside prior commitments because you don’t have enough. Remember: you are letting go of some things so that you can focus on the most important things right now. Ask yourself and communicate: What are we making room for? What are we running toward? What are we weeding out (or moving aside), and what will that enable us to grow? In particular, what are some new priorities that have come up? What are we currently not doing that we can or should add because there is an opportunity to leverage or a critical need to fill? Use our Weaving it All Together guide and worksheet to chart your course.

5. Don’t lose sight of equity.

It’s easy to deprioritize racial (and other types of) equity and inclusion for the sake of expediency. But you don’t want to come out of this crisis only to realize that you left behind your most vulnerable stakeholders. Here are some questions (adapted from our SMARTIE goal-setting process) you can ask yourself to consider racial equity and inclusion implications during your reprioritization process:

  • Will prioritizing ______ help us build power for our most marginalized community members? Will it move us forward on our racial equity and inclusion journey? How?
  • Which key stakeholders have I consulted (or need to consult) to check for unintended negative consequences?
  • How will we involve our most marginalized community members in the process of achieving this priority?

6. Systematize and revisit.

Reprioritization is like most personal grooming—you can’t just do it once and be done forever (just ask anyone who’s recently Googled “how to give yourself a haircut”). Ideally, you’d revisit your priorities on an ongoing basis and find ways to systematize it by adding a “priorities check” to your check-in or leadership team meeting agendas. Check-ins give managers and staff a consistent time and space to build the relationship, balance priorities, and serve as a resource for each other. With that said, even just doing it once will make a huge difference!

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