Leveraging a Position Prioritization Methodology to Deliver Truly Strategic HR

The Solution: Differentiated Approaches Based on Position Prioritization

Position prioritization is not a new concept, but it is not one well known and practiced either.  Organizations that have adopted prioritization methodologies have been heralded by their corporate leaders and the board as being truly strategic, but getting the methodologies implemented rarely makes anyone a hero.  The concept behind position prioritization is a simple one; some jobs demonstrate more direct impact on the success/failure of the organization and as a result should be subject to a different set of policies, programs, practices, and processes.  While the percentages of roles subject to prioritization range by industry, the vast majority of program leaders among those firms that have embraced prioritization would agree that in general position prioritization methodologies identify between 10-16% of the organizations positions as mission critical or key. 

Prioritization methodologies generally segment the workforce into three categories of roles, each of which is defined here:

  1. Mission Critical – Positions deemed mission critical demonstrate a direct and visible impact on the success or failure of the organization in a time period of days, not weeks or months. Examples here might include a maintenance engineer dealing with highly volatile equipment or a premier client account manager.  The absence of a top performer in a mission critical role directly correlates to a missed performance opportunity, just as the presence of a bottom performer in such a role correlates to a realized risk.  In our experience, mission critical roles make up between 1-3% of the workforce.

  2. Key Contributor – Positions that fall into this category are often way more important that people assume.  While their impact is not immediately visible, it becomes apparent within a few weeks.  One example that we recently encountered of such a position is a logistics coordinator in a national transportation company.  While all of the organizations assets were fully deployed and the schedule looked good, in reality the assets were deployed in a manner that produced a fraction of the revenue produced under the previous coordinator.  While mission critical roles often directly touch customers and key processes, key contributors often influence the ability of individuals in mission critical roles to be successful.  Key contributor roles make up between 9-13% of the workforce.

  3. General Contributor – The vast majority of the workforce is neither mission critical or key, but they still contribute to the success or failure of the organization albeit in less direct and visible ways.  In general, such roles are those that can tolerate extended vacancies without significant detriment to the organization.  While surrounding positions may become burnt out, they can absorb the workload.  Having top performers in said roles may be OK for a short period of time, but such assignments should be short in duration and used primarily as a skill development exercise, as top performers will become bored and stagnant in such roles if left too long. 

Why Position Prioritization Isn’t Overwhelmingly Embraced

You can probably surmise the reason…politics.  In our past experience many senior leaders and line managers quickly subscribe to the concept until they are tasked with participating in the execution of it.  Once they get past the realization that the organizational chart is not the prioritization answer and start to think about the processes they control and how the work actually gets done, they realize prioritization is a serious activity that should not be undertaken heedlessly. While developing the prioritization criteria often starts out as a fairly benign process, it can often become very politically charged when senior leaders start to realize that under the proposed criteria they may not get the same level of access to prioritized resources as some of their colleagues.  If too many start to realize this, they may start to sabotage the process until everyone essentially agrees to give up on the it. 

Avoiding Demoralization of the Workforce Post Implementation of a Prioritization Methodology

While HR generalists will lob many arguments against implementing a prioritization methodology, the most common is that doing so will demoralize the overall workforce to a point that any gains that could have been achieved by the few will be erased by the masses.  This position is based on the assumption that employees do not already know that some positions are more valuable to the enterprise and accept the logic that said positions should be treated differently.  Luckily, that assumption is a false one.  Throughout 2008 we asked more than 15,000 employees across 12 organizations if they were comfortable with the practice of prioritization.  A whopping 79% of employees surveyed indicated comfort, while only 13% indicated discomfort.  The truth is that prioritizing mission critical or key jobs positively impacts everyone and hurts no one.  By focusing on these jobs, the organization optimizes it chances at success which in turn helps drive job security, enhanced rewards (bonuses), career advancement opportunities and reputation for all.  Being on a winning team raises every participants value in the marketplace for labor.  This is very evident in professional sports where every team member wants the strongest players on the field when the score is tied and only two minutes remain on the clock.  To help employees adjust, organizations need to educate them on the value to them of supporting the initiative and to communicate how and why decisions are made.  To say it another way, they need to be brought into the business.

Key Steps in Implementing a Position Prioritization Methodology

Implementing a mission/key position prioritization methodology isn’t extremely complicated, but it is not something HR leaders can do in a vacuum.  Organizations that have embraced prioritization will attest that implementing a truly strategic program requires a level of knowledge about the business and its keys activities that HR professionals simply don’t have.  As a result, position prioritization is often something coordinated by HR but executed by senior leaders and line managers.  The key steps include:

  1. Garnering Support from the Executive Committee.  A position prioritization methodology fundamentally changes how the organization will engage the workforce, and as a result must have the full support both publicly and privately of the entire executive committee.

  2. Break Down Key Strategic Goals and Objectives in Mission Critical Activities.  To truly align with the business strategy, and prioritization assigned to various roles must be due to their relation to mission critical activities required to achieve a strategic goal or objective. 

  3. Map All Processes that Occur During Mission Critical Activities in Every Function.  For each mission critical activity defined, map all processes required to complete the activity at the quality level desired, the talent resources needed by the process and any critical points within the process where a position vacancy or poor performer in the role could impact success/failure of the process by more than 10%. Every position that impacts the success/failure of a process that makes up a mission critical activity by more than 10% is a mission critical role.

  4. Identify Key Contributors That Directly Impact Mission Critical Roles.  Rarely does work get done in a vacuum and more often than not a small subset of individuals in key roles influence whether or not a top performer in a mission critical role can be successful.  While identifying mission critical roles is an activity largely completed through process review, identifying key roles is a little more subjective.  The easiest way to achieve this task is to simply survey individuals in mission critical roles and have them identify the work of others that either enables or threatens their ability to achieve desired goals.

  5. Share and Test.  For a position prioritization methodology to be successful, everyone must buy in to the idea that the right set of positions has been identified and be comfortable with resources and attention being awarded to said positions in a disproportionate share.  To help establish such buy in, keep the process open and communicate with the entire organization at various stages of the process what the results are, how you arrived at them, and allow anyone to challenge the rational.  (On several occasions line employees who actually know how the work gets down pointed out roles that got overlooked because the prioritization was based solely on perceptions about how various tasks got completed.)

Moving Forward

More and more organizations are experiencing the pressure to provide advanced HR solutions, but are rarely afforded the budget required to roll out such solutions to the entire organization.  Position prioritization methodologies make it possible for HR leaders to deliver truly strategic 1:1 services to individuals in roles that directly impact the business in highly visible ways while offering a stable of more cost efficient solutions to the entire organization.  Whereas historically more resources were deployed to the underperforming employee, position prioritization rights the misdirection and assures that resources get funneled to top performers in roles with a proven and visible impact.  Focusing efforts of roles that senior accept impact the business makes it possible for HR to assume some credit for business performance, which in turn improves not only the ROI of the function, but also the image of the function as a serious strategic business function among senior leaders and line managers. 

Is your organization challenging the status quo and implementing innovative HR solutions that involve prioritization?  Are you looking for validation, insight into what other are doing that is related, or industry attention?  If yes, we would love to hear what you are up to and share with you some of the more strategic advances we have seen of late.  To set up a discussion, contact Master Burnett via e-mail at [email protected].

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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