Sunday, October 9, 2011

On prioritization

At my place of work, we have a list of priorities to help guide our decision-making: we say safety first, quality second, cost third. These types of lists make us feel good, look great on paper, and are really nice tools for making people feel guilty. (“If safety is number one, name one thing you did today to make the workplace safer…”).

Of course in reality prioritizing in this way is considerably less useful than you might think.

My company says safety is first, but if we failed to make payroll this weekend, none of our employees would say, “Well I can’t go to the grocery store, but at least they provide a safe work environment. That is the most important thing, after all.” So then clearly being an ethical employer (paying people what they are owed) is at least as important as safety. Also if safety is truly number one, then we would spend any amount of money making the workplace safer – instead, we analyze whether it is financially sound decision-making. So it seems that the desire to remain profitable also is at least as important as safety. Hm. What else? Is safety more important than being legally compliant? For example, if the safest possible scenario for a certain confined space entry is to send a small child down it, is it okay to break child labor laws in order to have an overall safer work environment?

So what are we saying, then? Are we saying that the priority list must be much, much larger? No, because even if these things are all included, priority listing them is useless—the situations define the priority, not a rote law.

For example, take financial stability and safety. If, say, an overhead crane is damaged and shuddering unstably, then the risk is immediately dangerous to life and health—so in this case, safety is more important than financial stability. Even if it puts the company under, you do not operate the crane. But if our safety department comes in and tells us we cannot repair defects in our product because it is too dangerous, then our only option is either to shut the entire company down or to put financial stability above safety and try to mitigate the risks.

So you see, sometimes being financially responsible is the higher priority; sometimes being safer is the higher priority. The context is key.

So the way I have tried to explain priorities to employees is to divide all actions into two categories: foundational values and task priorities.

Foundational values are the things that define who we are, not what we do. They are the values of how we do our business. They do not change, and a good businessperson is always trying to balance them to keep as many of them “good” as possible at a given time. They would be things like: financial responsibility, safety, ethics, and legal compliance. These are the things which move through and with all of our other decisions.

Task priorities are what we do, prioritized by which are the most critical for our business. They should help you focus your daily tasks to help you ensure you are doing the right thing for the business. The priority list of tasks is a list where the higher ranked tasks get the majority of your attention. So for example, this list might be: product quality, customer service, low inventory, cost reduction, and improved process control.

You see, your foundational values are not a priority in and of themselves: they run through and with all of the other things. You never choose between two foundational values; you try to balance them all at once. And you never have to say, “Am I choosing safety or quality in this case?” Because safety is a foundational value that you are always trying to employ: you try to bring safety into all of your “tasks”—into quality, customer service, low inventory, cost reduction, and process controls.

Christianity is not significantly different. We tend to want to tie it down and say, “Put God first. Then family second. Then church third. Then career fourth. Then other people fifth.” (By the way: after a great sermon by a good friend, Josh Hurlburt, there is good reason to think that list should be—God, other people, career, then church.)

But with Christian priority lists, we run into the same issue – what to do with the #1 spot? Do we really face a lot of situations where we must decide between God and family? “I know my baby needs his diaper changed, but I haven’t had my daily Bible study yet. Let’s look at the priority list…well God is first. Sorry kid. Be back in 30 minutes.”

Of course we don’t have to choose between God and family – because God tells us how to engage with our family, and thus engaging properly with our family is an act of obedience to Him.

You see, the foundational values of Christianity are two: love the Lord God with all your heart, mind, and soul; and love your neighbor as yourself. These two things (love God, love others) are our foundational principles that go with us through all other decisions. You do not have to choose between these things and other things.

For example, I spend about 50 hours a week (sometimes more, unfortunately) at work. That means that I am by definition spending more time with my career than I am with God. (I also spend more time sleeping than I do praying.) Does this mean that I am somehow not letting God be number 1 in my life? Certainly not (or at least, not for that reason)!

Remember that loving God is a foundational value, not a part of the priority list. So it is not a question of choosing between your career and God; it is a question of how you can love and honor God every single moment of your career. Is your career bringing honor to God? Are you showing His love in your career? Are you making career decisions based upon the principles of His Word and prayer?

So let me humbly suggest a new approach to Christian prioritization.

The foundational values of Christianity are: love God and love others. These two things should be present in whatever you do. These are the things that intermingle with everything on your priority list.

Your priorities should be something like: 1. Immediate family; 2. Career; 3. Serving; 4. Church activities. (The details and ranking I leave up to you and God; I’m not saying this is the perfect order, just using an example.) The ranking may change in certain periods of your life; obviously the priority for a parent of a newborn is different from the priority of a single person, which is again different from the priority of an empty-nester.

The primary point, though, is clear: prioritization must be viewed in terms of foundational values which are encompassed in all areas of life, and task-based prioritization of the day-to-day activities. You do not choose between loving God and being with your family; you instead are to engage your foundational values (love God, love others) while being with your family. You do not choose between God and career; you instead choose how to engage your love for God and others at all times while doing your career (which may require changing jobs, downsizing, or changing how you behave).

This is a much better way of looking at the world, and one that (for me at least) removes some of the guilt-based legalism that can steal your joy in life. You should at all times love God and love others – these are not the top two of a list of priorities; they are the foundational principles that you must be seeking to apply at all times. Focusing on your family does not mean that you are denying God—so long as you are focusing on your family in a God-fearing, God-honoring way.

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