As I walked to the train station this morning, I had the theme song of Laverne and Shirley just buzzing in my head: “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Sclemeel, schlemazel, hasenfeffer incorporated.” Huh? That’s right. What the heck was that line about? That lyric probably exemplifies what the general public feels about this looming “fiscal cliff.” I have an upcoming staff meeting where I will probably yet again explain –or attempt to- in layman’s language what all this talk about a cliff and sequestration is all about. But honestly, all this fiscal cliff talk just makes me want to go to Cabo San Lucas and go cliff diving for real. I feel the need some real adventure and not this ho-hum dry, repetitive and predictable cliff diving talk. Tax the wealthy-or the uber wealthy. Lower the corporate tax rate. Address looming entitlement costs. Raise the ceiling (debt, that is). Don’t raise the ceiling. Yadayadayada. Haven’t we heard this all before?
Sequestration was meant to be a “poison pill” of sorts that would motivate politicians, and the powers that be, to compromise and address the serious financial problems that the United States has been and continues to face. But these days poison pills are not all that they used to be. A poison pill is a way to make something that is highly desired by others to be unappealing. Netflix just recently announced it had adopted a poison pill. It was looking at a hostile takeover bid and it counteracted by creating a “shareholder-rights plan.” Interestingly, by enhancing rights, the takeover becomes less likely as the company becomes more expensive. It does say something, don’t you think, when a “poison pill” entails expanding access. Carl Icahn who was spearheading the possible takeover noted that such a poison pill was “an example of poor corporate governance.” It seems to me that poison pills are often part of good governance when done honorably and true sacrifice in mind. What is your company’s poison pill threshold?
The history of “poison pill” usage goes back to the heyday of espionage and spygames when those that were captured were supposed to take cyanide capsules rather than be tortured and divulge information. Supposedly, one took the poison pill for the greater good. A poison pill is supposed to make you reflect, in a way, on what is important. Historically, there had been a sense of honor in the sacrifice one makes in taking a poison pill. Going back to our modern day poison pill-that being the fiscal cliff- where is the honor in all these deliberations? What is the tipping point for self-sacrifice (falling on one’s sword just to drop out more violent imagery) in the 21st century?
People and organizations alike have to make hard choices in difficult times. Not only should individuals be looking to see what they need to do in their own households to tighten up but they should be reflecting on how they can rise above their current situation. Or so the politicians keep telling us. By rising above our current situation, we supposedly then we need all those “entitlements.” Bah, humbug!
Well, guess what! Organizations need to undergo a similar process. At the organizational level, there has to be a sense of urgency. Or rather an urgent sense to determine what is truly urgent. How can quality of services be continued without all the previously available resources and associated costs? I’m afraid that many non-profits are not currently engaging in this process. Everyone is thinking that the fiscal cliff will be handled at the last minute and things will continue as usual. Or many are just bored or overwhelmed by all this fiscal cliff talk. When you run an agency you can’t afford to be bored by cliffs and poison pills. How do we get non-profits to take up the call for prioritization? Many non-profits see themselves as providing series to all who need them: “we don’t turn away those in need”. That is understandable and admirable. Good karma will come your way. But nonetheless prioritization needs to occur.
Both at our workplace and in our own lives we need to determine what is necessary and what would be nice to do. One has to start putting together that to-do list. I love lists! Every day I create a new list. The problem is that my daily lists tend to consist of 50 items that somehow I think I am going to get done that day. Yeah, that is a bit unrealistic. Somehow, that list of 50 items gives me purpose, though. I could just cross off the list those items that would be nicer to do but are not urgent or necessary. However, instead of crossing them off entirely, I put those items on what ostensibly turns out to be a long-term goals list. Overall, though it is time to buckle down and get down to that which is most essential.
Of course, we want to be innovative and do not want to stifle creativity. Watching the national news and listening in on staff meetings across the country, it feels that we have lost our ability to prioritize. We can’t do everything we want to do. How many times during the past few years have you had staff come into your office and earnestly state “I don’t’ know what to prioritize. I need help.” There seems to be a flood of overwhelmed individuals out in the workforce. It appears at times that people didn’t quite expect their workload or didn’t quite expect such a diverse workload. How many staff have the luxury of working on just one type of task or just one task at a time?
Perhaps while we are teaching our children to read, write, sing and color we can add some lessons on prioritization 101? Prioritization has become such a specialized skill set that there are now careers and workplace positions called “project managers.” These individuals are meant to manage their team’s priorities and set the course, steer the helm and manage anxieties. Well, some manage anxieties. Other project managers just add to the sense of anxiety. What skill-sets does a project manager come with? Oftentimes, they have the MBA credential. But do they have a degree in counseling, hand-holding or policing?
Past research shows that within the workplace setting there are certain variables that impact how prioritization conflicts are impacted, escalated and addressed. Important factors to consider include: technical complexity, unclear authority, internal politics, and project life cycle. Sometimes staff may indeed be too scared to prioritize a certain task because its apparent complexity is beyond their skill set. Some projects don’t have a clearly delineated task assignment process. Sometimes projects get assigned based on who tends to get things done; consequently overloading the 10% that tend to do the work. Just like that saying goes “10% do 90% of the work.” When that happens how does a person or a project manager prioritize?
Obviously, internal office politics can undermine or speed up a task-prioritization process. Who can you make happy by getting which task done? Some people will chose the to-do the task that impacts a colleague (in order to help that person out) or they may choose to do the task that will land them a higher (good) visibility in the office. Some people only focus on those high-visibility tasks that make them appear as highly motivated before the powers that be. But the reality is that they always let their fellow colleagues down as a result. Yikes, talk about morale buster. Then there are those employees that just forget a task and do not know how to hide that fact or perhaps do not even care. Somehow, because of the way the universe works, those are the ones that get ahead in the workplace.
This situation is especially salient in non-profits where there is no real profit to be made but prioritization is still required but can go against the grain, the heart, the soul of the organization (and its corresponding cause). This morning’s quote from Joe Scarborough (quoting Eric Hoffer- psychologist that studied fanaticism) “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and degenerates into a racket.” This is the workplace scene in many places, including congress. At the end of the day, we just have to ask ourselves what are we willing to sacrifice and compromise for the greater good?