Setting Priorities – What is your water?

Posted on


Last year, I had the opportunity to hear Kat Cole, Group President of FOCUS Brands at the time, speak on leadership and the power of setting priorities. Cole shared with us her experiences on a service trip in Africa, in hopes of helping nearby villages with humanitarian efforts, and what it taught her about setting priorities.  In this article, I will recount her experience and provide step-by-step guidance for how you can apply it to your work as an engineer.


Sound good?  Good – let’s get to it! 


Kat Cole’s Priority Setting Experience

In talking with the leaders of the towns, she learned that their number one priority was having access to clean water.  Being the overly ambitious and naive Americans, her colleagues asked what their number two and number three priorities were, hoping to be able to make a really big difference.  The leaders said that their number two priority was water and their number three priority was water.  


Think about that for a second.  Access to clean water is so essential.  So basic. But so literally life-changing for these towns.  


As they were travelling out to neighboring villages, they passed a small village.  This caused those on the service trip to question – Was this small village not worthy of helping?  The answer to this was that, yes, it was worthy of helping, however they had the ability to help even more people and make a bigger impact by travelling a little further to a larger village.  


Then as they approached their target village, they learned that there was an even larger village further down the road.  So why were they not travelling a little bit further to help even more people and make an even bigger impact at the village, instead of helping at this medium village?  The answer was that the large village was too large.  They did not have the resources to tackle the challenge of the large village at that time, so the best that they could do was to help the medium village.  


A year or so later, Kat Cole learned the fate of the villages.  The medium-sized village was thriving, with access to clean water.  So much so that the leaders of that medium sized village were able to teach the leaders of the other villages the same tools and techniques that allowed them access to clean water.  A win for everyone!  


Setting Priorities – Lessons Learned

So what can we learn about priorities from Kat Cole’s experience?  How can you, as an engineer, apply this to your work (and life, for that matter)?


This experience comes down to three main points:

  1. Priorities should be limited
  2. Aim for the highest ROI
  3. By focusing on the right things, you actually improve everything


Priorities should be limited


What is your ‘water’?  What is so basic, but so critical, to your organization that by improving it everything improves?


Often we set priorities by listing out everything and then assigning them a rank, knowing full well that number 37 on our list is NEVER going to get addressed.  What happens when we ‘prioritize’ this way?  You end up trying to work on multiple things at once and do not accomplish nearly what you set out to accomplish.  Or you fail to get started because the list is too overwhelming.


PLUS  Unlocking your Engineering Career Potential: How to Craft a Purpose-filled Mission Statement

What if, instead, your list consisted of just one or two priorities? Ok, maybe 3 if you really cannot narrow it down! Seriously, with just a few items on your list, you are going to be laser focused and motivated to make a big improvement in these areas.  You will have an easy way to gauge the value of your work – Does it positively impact those priorities?  No? Then stop doing it and do something else that will.  


So I encourage you to really focus, and truly limit the number of “priorities” that you have.  This will provide you with the clarity to really see the big picture and what truly matters – to you, to your family, to your organization, to your community.


Aim for the highest ROI


Once you have determined WHAT matters, now you have to be realistic about what can be accomplished. It is admirable to ‘dream big’ and have ‘lofty goals’, but you will make the biggest impact by setting out to accomplish what you actually have the means to accomplish!  


So focus on the things that are small enough to change, but big enough to matter.  Sometimes you might have to sacrifice a small opportunity, to really make an impact that is sustainable and matters.  Also, you have to be honest and accept that some things are too big to change, at least right now with the resources that you have.


Again, focus on that which is small enough to change, but big enough to matter.   


By focusing on the right things, you actually improve everything


Think about how different this story would have been if the group had instead chosen to try to address the water and other issues during their time, with their limited resources.  Or what if they had not heeded the leaders’ advice and instead tried to help the largest village?  


It is difficult to envision them being successful.  And even more challenging to imagine the neighboring villages being impacted in the way that they were.  

Setting Priorities – Step-by-step Guide

So what are your priorities?  Here are some steps you can take to apply the insight from above. (Don’t worry, I have made it super simple by creating this easy to use workbook for you – Download your workbook here)


Step 1 – Make a list of all possible priorities

This is the brainstorming portion of setting your priorities.  Just start doing a brain dump on everything that is important to you.  Everything that you think needs to get accomplished.  Everything that could be a priority for you.  No judging here, just write it down!  Shoot for 10 to 15 different items, but no worries if you have a few more or a few less.


Step 2 – Narrow down the list

Now take a quick moment to compare all of the possible ones to each other.  Anything that is just not nearly as important to you as the others?  Mark it off the list.  Something on the list that is so overwhelming to you that you know you won’t even get started?  Mark it off the list.  


PLUS  Inspirational Quotes for Engineers

Remember, you are going to end this exercise with just 3 priorities.  Three.  So go with your gut, If there is something that is not even worth pursuing on paper, you definitely will not work toward it in real life. So mark it off the list!


Step 3 – Think about the ROI of each priority

This can be a challenging one.  Some priorities, like our families, do not come with what we think of as a typical return ($) for our investment (time).  But don’t discount these priorities.  Sometimes the intangible returns are the most valuable of all. Items like culture, safety, and relationship building are long term investments, but can be a priority none the less.


Step 4 – Rank your priorities based on ROI

Sometimes it is a straightforward ranking and sometimes it is not.  If all of the ROIs are in similar terms, then it is very easy to compare the priorities.  Most often, however, there is some bias.  That is OK.  For a family on a single income, that income might take a higher priority than it would for a family that has two incomes.  


Improving the culture of an organization may be critical for a failing company, but just mildly important for a thriving one.  In theory, that “return” of improved culture would be less per the “investment” for the latter company. So while both companies might consider company culture a high priority, both would not necessarily have the same ROI.


That’s OK. Priorities should be deeply individual.  


Step 5 – Limit list to top 3

So now that you’ve ranked all of the priorities based on ROI, draw a line below the top three.  


Did something not make the cut that has a pit growing in your gut?  That’s OK – that is what Step 6 is for…..


Step 6 – Reflect

Again, things are not always straightforward when you are talking about priorities.  So take some time to think about if these top three really are the top three.  Some questions to ask yourself as you are reflecting are:

  • What does your gut say?
  • Is there something so essential (your water) that somehow didn’t make the top three?  Why is that?
  • Are there other benefits that you hadn’t considered?
  • If you focus on these three items, will other priorities improve as well?
  • Will improvement of these three priorities be sustainable?
  • Is there another priority that you are just not OK with not focusing on?


This time of reflection is critical.  While many of us are action-oriented, the “ready, fire, aim” approach is not often effective.  Priorities are just that – priorities, so spend some time to make sure that you are really focused on the right things.


Step 7 – Adjust

Reflecting on your defined priorities allows you to adjust them before you’ve invested significantly into them.  This refinement is an important part of the process because the better your priorities align, the better your performance in all areas of your life will be.  



Have a different method of prioritizing that works for you? Join our private facebook group Engineers With Impact and share your success-building tips!  

To learn more about insights from Kat Cole’s talk, read Hot Shot Rule: How to improve your career (and life) with this one question!