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“The Devil is in the priority list!”

Still relevant!

I wrote this article before Covid-19 struck & as I read it again, am still convinced that it’s still relevant to share this with you! In the book Good Strategy Bad Strategy, the difference and why it matters Richard Rumelt states “the main impediment to action is the forlorn hope that certain painful choices or actions can be avoided – that the whole long list of hoped-for “priorities” can be achieved.” Business leaders’ response to prioritisation is challenging and often masked in these long lists of priorities or to-dos. The problem statement, however, is that there tends to be a challenge around what to say no to (aka prioritisation). 


Image source: Dreamtime.com


It’s natural to avoid the pain

The true test with planning depends on the need to prioritise, essentially translating to ‘less-is-more”. In a perfect world, we would love to execute on our entire wish list – however, we are faced with the reality of limited resources translating to the need to make choices between the alternatives on hand. The natural way to avoid such pain and conflict within the decision-making process is to list and sign off all the projects and initiatives we want to achieve in the short /medium term. This approach of not prioritising leads to an attempt to do too much, as well as a recipe for failure or inaction.



So, what does a quality plan look like?

Firstly, its starts by looking at the “wish-list” and unpacking which projects are critical to the achievement of the long-term goals of the company – therefore needing ranking. 

How not to list your key projects   How to rank & prioritise key projects
  List of projects   Name of projects Ranking
1 Project A   Project B 1
2 Project B   Project D 2
3 Project C   Project A 3
4 Project D   Project E 4
5 Project E   Project C 5



From the above table, it means Project B, should get all the resources first. These resources are several things – such as people, investment, management focus and most importantly how these projects align to the strategic priorities and direction of the business. Should there still be sufficient resources after Project B, then Project D would be next in line for the allocation of whatever is still available. Repeat that till you get to the first project that would still be achieved with available resources. Now we have a priority list!



So, what’s the impact?

With a shorter list, the organisation can focus on the priorities a lot more and avoid trying to be everything to everyone / or trying to please everyone – only to disappoint. This is the heartbeat of winning on your strategy. Make a choice!

I am not oblivious of the fact that there will be unhappiness for those decision-makers whose priorities have not made the cut, or ultimately a project forgone could still translate to market share loss or a problem not resolved in terms of poor client experience / and or satisfaction. Again, that’s what happens with choice!




Image source: Fortune.Com

What does this mean for your organisation?

I would like to close off by Quoting Bill Gates2 in his book The Road Ahead he states “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the short term (2 years) and underestimate what will change in the long term (10 years).”

  • Therefore, by shortening, ranking and prioritisation you avoid the confusion of doing too much
  • Prioritisation cannot be done by one person. There must be some level of collective buy-in to ensure support from the decision-makers – otherwise, the priority items will fail
  • Yes, it’s ok! For the top-ranked priorities to get pretty much all the resources


We always say the devil is in the detail, I put it to you “the devil is in the priority list.”




  1. What VUCA Really Means for You (Harvard Business Review), (Author – Nathan Bennett & James Lemoine (link – https://hbr.org/2014/01/what-vuca-really-means-for-you)
  2. How to Prepare Your Company for The Internet of Things (Forbes Magazine), (Author – Adam White) – (Feb 2017). (https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2017/02/14/how-to-prepare-your-company-for-the-internet-of-things/#1433392c67e8


Thought Leadership article by:

Clifford Mack CA (SA), Head: Strategic Projects at Nedbank Insurance | Strategy & Execution | Top35 under35



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