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Jan 03

Priority Is Not Plural

Posted by: Steve Marr

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In business, competing pressures continually vie for our attention. Every day we are bombarded with multiple challenges, production decisions, customer demands, employee scheduling issues-all screaming for attention. Meanwhile, our accounts receivable continue to age. If only we could get our priorities straight, we think.


Did you know that the word priority wasn't used in its plural form until well into the twentieth century? Priority meant one item, not many. Today, because of the pace of business, we tend to forget the principle of priority as we try to focus on multiple objectives. Clearly, most of us don't have the luxury of keeping just one project at a time on our desks, but we need to identify the one item that rises above all others in importance, focus on that item, and accomplish that priority quickly and completely.

Patricia's travel agency was struggling last year with reduced cash flow, lower commissions, and fewer travel bookings after September 11. At one point, the agency was within four weeks of running out of cash. Several large commercial clients owed $130,000 for past travel, including some six-month-old charges. The agency was also losing $2,500 each month on fixed operating costs.

Patricia was near panic, trying to collect old bills, pursuing new business, and looking for ways to cut expenses. For several weeks, she floated between these key objectives-and accomplished none of them. When she and I met, we identified her number one priority-cash flow-and determined that the best and quickest way to remedy the problem was to collect outstanding receivables. Each day, Patricia and her staff focused on collections, gathering information that clients needed to honor invoices. Over the next three weeks, they collected $115,000 in receivables, which allowed the agency make a required bank payment and continue operating.

Next, Patricia turned her attention to increasing sales, and then to trimming expenses. However, if she had failed to focus intensively on collecting receivables as her top priority, nothing else would have mattered. She would have defaulted at the bank and been forced into bankruptcy.

When the Lord gave Joshua instructions to possess the Promised Land, the conquest was not immediate. It required many years of warfare to take the land completely. With the Lord's guidance, Joshua selected one target after another. Cities were vanquished one at a time. If the Israelites had attempted to conquer everything at once, the result would have been failure. Likewise in business we may see many objectives that need attention. But we must develop the habit of selecting one key objective at a time and focusing on it to completion.

When faced with multiple battlefronts, if you are uncertain which battle to fight, it may be more important to pick one and get moving on it, rather than endlessly agonizing over picking just the right battle. When Elijah challenged the people for not trusting in God, he said, "How long will you hesitate between two opinions?"(1 Kings 18:21, NASB). We must realize that not establishing a number one priority is the same as choosing chaos. When bird hunting and a flock takes off all at once, if we let loose with both barrels, we tend to miss everything. It's better to select one bird, aim and fire, and then try for the second bird.

After selecting your top priority, take time to explain the decision to your staff. Often we make the mistake of assuming that everyone knows what's most important. Patricia continually needed to reinforce with her staff the priority of collecting past due bills before developing new business. One staff member had scheduled twelve appointments with new prospects during a week when a pile of old bills sat uncollected on her desk. Ongoing reinforcement is always needed.

Of course, we do not always have the luxury of being able to tackle just one problem at a time. Paul said, "I run in such a way, as not without aim" (1 Corinthians 9:26). But if we're constantly putting out fires, we're running without aim and we'll miss the target. Each month, select three to four key items that will make a 50 percent difference in your business. Schedule adequate time to achieve your top objective, and then plan the time necessary to finish the rest. When other demands clamor for attention, keep number one at the top of your list and don't lose focus.

Although this system sounds easy, I know that maintaining your focus is tough. But if you will select a key target and not allow distractions to interfere, you will move your business forward one strong step at a time.

Steve Marr, Your Christian Business Coach

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