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This is a bit of a stream of consciousness and partial connections…..

The other week I was in a meeting when someone presented a paper which included, among other things, the thorny issue of how we go about ‘prioritisation’ at a strategic level.  For some reason the word niggled me and I had a sharp intake of breadth – the Chair noticed it and invited me to speak.  Now I know I could have stayed quiet, but I didn’t… instead I tried to articulate my concern.

I explained that when we write down ‘our priorities’ we immediately disenfranchise the stakeholders who don’t see their interests represented in those priorities.  I asked whether there was a different language we could use.

My comments prompted some discussion which revealed different perspectives of prioritisation and I also had to accept being teased every time someone said the P word for the rest of the meeting :-).  But, the whole occasion left me pondering “what is it we do when we prioritise?”  It is a practice after all – the prioritiser(s) prioritises using a process of prioritisation to come up with some priorities (try saying that quickly, it was bad enough spelling it!).

In the discussion I prompted, there were some people who advocated a ‘systematic’ approach to prioritising.  Coming up with a grid of criteria through which each option is evaluated – ‘objectively’ of course.  This could be backed with cost-benefit type information for each option.  I suppose that is a way of ‘protecting’ your decision so if people question your choice you can state the criteria and ‘proof’ for that being a priority.  The risk is that the position comes “the criteria came up with the answer, ‘we’ had nothing to do with it.”  Not taking responsibility for the choice.

Others said that they thought the ‘tool’ approach was all a little complicated.  We know what we want to do, why don’t we just get on and do it?  As I have considered it since, I think these people were saying that we know what we want to do, so all we will do is create criteria that help us rationalise what our gut is telling us.  A good opportunity for me to bring in the matter of emotions – well actually people will do what they feel emotionally driven by, what they are enthusiastic about – if we over-rationalise and come up with an ‘answer’ that does not interest people then they will ignore the bit of paper and go away and do what they wanted to do anyway.

To me, the whole process seems quite tied up with the drawing of boundaries around what is “important”.  In articulating a priority we are actually saying the things ‘in the boundary’ are more important to us and more deserving of energy and resources than the things ‘out of the boundary’. What I then observe is those with interests ‘out of the boundary’ get concerned and therefore use the opportunities they have to influence the priorities. The resulting ‘negotiation’ results in a change to the wording of the “priority” so that it effectively broadens the boundary enough to appease those who had concerns.  End result – a list of priorities so broad that everyone’s interests are served and – well – we then have no real way of guiding how we decide what to do and not do on a daily basis… they are not actually priorities anymore just a series of high level generalised statements.

Reading back on this post so far, I see I have alluded to three different approaches to the practice of prioritising

– a technical-rational approach with the danger of not taking responsibility for choice

– an intuitive-use our guts approach with the danger of not being able to provide an explanation for your choice

– a political-negotiation approach with the danger of having such broad headings that there are no choices actually made


When I’ve been writing this, I have been reminded of some ideas in the TU812 course materials…

I can see some parallels with discussions of valuing which I touched on in a blog a while ago.  When I read Ison’s (2010) explanations of valuing that I referred to in that blog, I was reminded that valuing is actually part of our everyday activities we are always making judgements.  In Ison’s discussion of valuing he said that ‘evaluation’ is a device to bring the topic of valuing to the fore – so I think it is with prioritising and prioritisation.  We prioritise all the time – what email do I respond to, which meeting do I have time to prepare for, whose phone call should I ignore – the sum of all these little decisions, acts of valuing, actually determine what we have spent our time on – our priorities are the emergent property of all the little decisions we make on a day to day basis.  Prioritisation is a way of bringing this issue into the open – and hoping (or assuming) we can be more deliberate about it.

Prioritisation in a world of multiple perspectives also seems to work at the moment on the basis of ‘creating consensus’.  But is this an appropriate way of doing it?…

consensus suppresses enthusiasm for action and […] at many levels of activity the search for consensus is an inappropriate objective (Ison, 2010, 276)

So if our existing ideas and methods that are part of our practice of ‘prioritising’ are not very useful, I end up with questions like:

– Can the idea of social learning – creating concerted action – get over these problems?

– How does Checkland’s concept of accommodation help with this issue?

For now, I’ll publish this.  Perhaps those questions will grow into other posts soon – if I prioritise thinking through this some more of course!


Ison, R. (2010) Systems Practice: How to act in a climate-change world, Open University/Springer, Milton Keynes/London

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