The Primacy of Prioritization

Making hard choices may be the most important factor in organizational performance

The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” –Warren Buffet, renowned American investor and Chairman, Berkshire Hathaway

The core and chronic challenge for most mission-driven organizations is attempting to address a vast and often multiplying array of problems with limited human and financial resources. This is even more pronounced in African societies where social and environmental challenges are complex and rapidly escalating, while critical resources are even more constrained than they are in other parts of the world.

Frequently, organizations try to address numerous challenging initiatives at once, while lacking sufficient human and financial resources to do so. This challenge leads to the pervasive state of overstretch experienced by many local organizations, as defined by the following common characteristics:

  • Local organizations try to do too much with too few resources, and wind up not delivering strong results on anything that they do. This can lead to disappointing results for constituents, funders, and of course the organization itself.
  • Importantly, trying to do too much and not delivering effectively actually makes it more difficult to mobilize additional resources, because the key to increasing funding and other resources is to be able to demonstrate results that funders will want to invest in.
  • Staff become exhausted and burnt out. Some staff may leave the organization, or they may become less effective at their jobs as a result of such exhaustion and frustration.

Salvation through Prioritization

The only way to break out of this vicious cycle of overstretch and under-resourcing is through a dedicated and determined commitment to prioritization. This means identifying the absolute essential operational and organizational priorities, and ensuring that adequate resources are invested in delivering on those. At Maliasili Initiatives, we have found ourselves promoting and facilitating prioritization in this manner across nearly our entire portfolio of local partner organizations, to the point whereby it has become one of the central pillars of our approach.

Strategic planning, for example, is essentially a process for identifying and determining appropriate investments in the most important (i.e. ‘strategic’) organizational needs and opportunities in order to achieve one’s mission. A focused strategic plan provides the basis for annual work plans; we have worked with many of our partners to develop concise and consolidated annual work plans that are most essentially about identifying, and regularly tracking, an organization’s foremost priorities. Linking budgeting to work planning helps one be more realistic about work plans and ambitions by actually forcing realistic reflection on the resources- both human and financial- that one has to devote to executing and implementation.

Strategic plans, work plans, and budgets are all interlinked tools for determining priorities and allocating resources across an organization. They are geared towards helping organizations to identify and invest in priorities. And then organizational systems, including monitoring systems, need to constantly examine whether those priorities are being achieved and reflected in how an organization goes about its work.

Successful organizations are those that can stay focused and build in the discipline into their systems and programs that really reflect and reinforce their priorities and most critical goals. No organization can do everything, but through careful use and implementation of such systems, organizations give themselves the chance to really excel and build a track record of results.

Tackling one challenge well – and making an impact – is a much more effective approach and use of time than achieving a number of mediocre outcomes. Ultimately, prioritization is fundamental to performance.