Priorities (glossary entry)  

This topic covers several inter-related concepts having to do with: commitment, accountability, integrity, success, mission, and purpose. The core ideas are similar to the "urgent vs. important" distinctions in Covey's Seven Habits number 3 "First Things First"1,2,3. Here we look at their implications in greater detail.

The following issues factor in the decision-making processes of managerial relationship. Such relationships exist even in the absence of the standard "manager" and "worker" roles. For example, in a team, the managerial component is the team's collective agreement, and/or an appointed leader, and a worker component is any individual team member who is committed to something.

The Myth of Task Commitment

It is common for people to treat physical tasks, the related goals, and an overall mission or higher purpose as equally important things. This can lead to problems reconciling existing promises and commitments with changing priorities.

People ascribing to the "myth" will treat commitments to specific tasks as if they are more important than the underlying higher purpose. Such task-commitments are less ambiguously referred to as promises; they are agreements with another person or people about something that will happen in the future.

Sticking to a specific task-commitment is usually just an attempt to "look good", to fit in, or to avoid criticism, and thus is ego-driven. It "sells out" long-term responsibility to unthinking simplicity. It is much more effective to be committed to the underlying purpose than to any single specfic task.

I have been told ''taking risks'' is preferable to ''realizing my dreams''.
Sacrificing Life Purpose in the name of Task

This issue becomes significantly more complex when other people (who rarely understand one's individual life purpose) get involved. See MCV03.

The Hierarchy

To move beyond the myth involves realizing that there is a hierarchy of importance, which goes something like this:

Roles and Methods serve Tasks and Actions

Tasks and Actions serve Goals and Projects

Goals and Projects serve Mission and/or Purpose

(and the Mission/Purpose must be yours — see MCV02)

The "hierarchy of importance" asserts that accomplishing a task or performing an action is more important than any specific roles that people might be playing, or methods they might be using, to accomplish those results. In other words, if you know you need to accomplish a certain thing and it's not going so well, consider a different method, or re-evaluate the "roles" — how you and the other people have partitioned the work.

Similarly, Goals and Projects are more important than specific Tasks — the Task is just a means to an end (namely the Goal or Project). Similarly, Mission/Purpose is more important than specific Goals and Projects, because the latter are just one of many possible ways to fulfill the former.

Notice I did not mention commitment. Where does commitment fit in this system? The answer is that it fits anywhere:

Commitment serves whatever one commits to: one can be committed to a task, committed to a goal or project, or committed to a mission or purpose — and even to all three at the same time.

Commitment can be a core value and the same principle applies to "standards" and "core values" in general: they can be most applicable to tasks, to goals, to projects, to a mission or to a purpose, and possibly to more than one at the same time.

Another concept missing from the above is priorities. Here again, the answer is simple: one can prioritize multiple tasks in relation to one another, and likewise with goals, projects, missions, and purposes. The pitfalls, as well as their resolution, lie in whether one puts tasks above goals or vice-versa, and similarly with goals vs. purpose.

Conflicting Commitment, and Recommitment

Conflicting commitment is easy to understand in simple task vs. task situations — such as when a sick child makes a parent late for work, or when an airline's commitment to safety causes them to fail their commitment to their customers.

Much more difficult to understand, but crucial to the Myth, is when commitment to task conflicts with commitment to purpose. As I just stated, it is possible to be committed to a task, a goal, and a purpose all at the same time. The challenge is in recognizing when these commitments come into conflict, and then actually making the appropriate decision.

Most commonly the first of these is where people fail — they don't recognize that their task commitments serve the wrong purpose. This can be either because they are unclear on what purpose they want to be committed to (discussed in MCV02). It is also very frequently because the tasks simply fail to yield useful or relevant results. Sadly it is in this latter case — when the conflict should seemingly be blatantly obvious — that most people fail.

If the individual does recognize the conflict between task commitment and purpose commitment, the next step is recommitment. Recommitment is replacing one of the conflicting commitments with something new, more appropriate, and (hopefully) less conflicting.

The hierarchy presented above should make it clear that — so long as the purpose is valid, any conflicting goal or project commitment needs to be abandoned, and replaced with something consistent with the purpose (because goals and projects serve purpose). Similarly, if the task commitment conflicts with either the goal/project or the purpose, then it is the task commitment that needs to be abandoned (tasks serve goals and projects, which serve purpose or mission).

The purpose or mission is the only thing that is essential.

Unfortunately, that is often very difficult to do. There is much "ego-energy" invested in task-commitments and their fulfillment, compounded by any statements one has made to others regarding the task. Working against the logical motive to re-commit is the emotional, ego-driven motive to "look good", to "fit in" or to avoid criticism for the failed task.

It is also a lot easier, mentally speaking, to simply stick to the plan and do whatever tasks were originally planned. "Stay the course", even when the course turns out to be wrong. But this "sells out" long-term responsibility.

Integrity vs. Prediciton

A popular word that often comes up at this point in the discussion is integrity. With regard to tasks, actions and commitments thereto, "integrity" is used in its more common meaning (roughly synonymous with "honesty"). It is used with the implication that, when a person says they will do something, and then actually does what they said, they are perceived as having been honest — because what they said agreed with what (eventually) happened. The flip-side of this, and the truly destructive aspect of using the word "integrity", is the implication that if the action or task does not take place as stated, it's as if the person had been "dishonest".

What is ignored by this usage of integrity (with the implied meaning honesty) is that the person who made the statement of committing to the task, was speaking about the future — and was therefore unable either to tell the truth or to tell a falsehood — because neither had yet come to pass.

Furthermore, anyone treating the statement as a binding commitment of priority — "completing this task or action is to be considered more important than any conflicting tasks and actions" — is imposing a value system that places task above goal, and goal above purpose — inverting the fundamental hierarchy. The best one can do with such a statement, if one is to be true to the hierarchy of importance, is to treat it as a stated intention.

This whole notion of "integrity" as "telling the truth about the future" reveals another (earlier) level of the hierarchy, which I now present again with this extra level added:

Stated Intentions serve Tasks and Actions

Tasks and Actions serve Goals and Projects

Goals and Projects serve Mission and/or Purpose

(and the Mission/Purpose must be yours — see MCV02)

This makes two new points clear:

1. The real reason we make statements of intentions (to perform certain actions or tasks) is, of course, to coordinate effort with others acting in concert. By saying what will be done, and when, others can make plans and perform actions that work together, to mutual benefit, towards a common goal.

2. Commitment to a stated intention can come into conflict with the associated commitment to the task or action. An example is when the task is clearly behind schedule, and the lateness is treated as if it were worse than not doing the action/task at all. (See Do each job completely).

See Also

Lodge metaphor


1 : Wikipedia, "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People", encyclopedia article.

2 : "The 7 Habits for Highly Effective People" on the official Stephen Covey website.

3 : White Dove Books, summary of the Seven Habits book with a chart showing Urgent vs. Important and the 4 quadrants.

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