Change Management: What to Do When Priorities Change

Have you ever had a list of priorities in which everything was a priority?

It’s happened to a lot of us. We get our task list together, pour our coffee, and then settle in for a productive day when suddenly we’re overwhelmed with new projects that are marked for immediate attention.

Many people ask me about how to manage time, but I believe that time management depends on how we manage our priorities. We only have so much time and energy to give, so by taking care of our priorities first we’ll stay productive while minimizing pressure, stress, and burnout.

10 Tips to Manage a Change in Priorities

While it’s important to keep work on schedule, it can be overwhelming when you’re assigned new priorities on top of the deadlines you’re already rushing to meet.

So how do you handle a change in priorities without compromising the flow of your projects and change initiatives? You can make it easier by following these 10 tips:

1. Analyze the change strategy

This involves asking a few questions that will bring the entire change strategy into focus, starting with “The Why”:

  • Why are we changing, and what exactly is driving it?
  • How does the change align with the organization’s overall objectives?
  • Who initiated the change, and what’s their vision for the organization once the change is completed?

With this information, you’ll have a better handle on what the change will mean for your company, and be able to prioritize tasks more efficiently.


2. Assess the tasks’ priority

Now that you know more about the change, you can begin to analyze it on a deeper level. For example, determine if it’s critical, important, or nice to have. Also, is it important to one person, but a simple a nice-to-have for others?

Keeping an open line of communication with your manager and team will help guide you. It’s worth taking the time to ask, and they’ll appreciate your interest and concern. Also, asking questions now will save time and do-overs down the road.


3. Organize your current tasks

Have a good look at your current list of initiatives and determine what the impact will be on either the scope of work, schedule, or budget, in addition to the hours needed to complete each task. Not everything can be a priority, so move less critical tasks to a lower place on the list.


4. Be open to change

It might sound trite, but the idea of being open to change needs reinforcing. When disruptions in priorities happen – and trust me, they WILL – you have a choice to either embrace it or be closed off. It’s always better to accept the challenge and step into it.

It’s okay to be a little skeptical at first and your initial reaction may be negative – I’m famous for that! But once I get my questions and concerns answered, I step into the change quite easily. So will you!


5. Focus on what you can control

As David Rock notes in his book Your Brain at Work, when priorities change you should focus on which portions of your work you can control. You’ll stay productive by knowing exactly what you have influence over so you don’t waste time on work that is out of your control.


6. Manage your energy

Everyone is different. Some people (like yours truly) have their high-energy time first thing in the morning. Others have theirs around lunch. Still others peak later in the day. Find out during which time of day you do your best work, and schedule your more challenging priorities at that time.


7. Ask for help

Reach out to the person you report to if you need help prioritizing your tasks. Seeking out direction isn’t a show of weakness, but rather demonstrates that you’re thinking at a strategic level and not just completing tasks.


8. Follow-up

Once you’ve re-shifted your priorities, follow up with the person making the changes and get approval on your new priority list.

You can say something like, “I’m happy to make the change, and this is the impact on my other work. Are you okay with that?” You’re doing this for more than just “CYA”. There may be other organizational changes and initiatives happening at the same time that you aren’t aware of.

Additionally, the person creating the change might not be aware of the impacts at a detailed level like you are. They’ll want to know the consequences of any shifts in priorities so projects move forward as smoothly as possible.


9. Manage expectations

By this I mean managing expectations of both others and yourself. If there’s one rule I’ve discovered about plans is that they never go according to plan! Be prepared to be unprepared, and help others through those difficult times as well.

Think about how your organizational culture handles change initiatives. It won’t do you any good to get frustrated if you feel things don’t move fast enough, or if you work in an organization that is slow-moving and requires a lot of approvals, sign-offs, or other ‘red tape’ processed to legitimately get work done. Go with the flow, and pitch in if there’s anything you can do to help the wheels turn a little faster.


10. Encourage information sharing

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel to get things done. Ask if there’s a technology that could help your team with a new project. I like using Trello to help organize initiatives and collaborate with people. Determine if there are there common elements you could use from one initiative and transfer to another.

Talk to your internal, external, formal or informal networks. They will likely love to share experiences, workarounds, or ideas to help you and your team reach their goals.


Create success, not stress

Managing priorities takes skill, patience, discipline, and the willingness to be flexible and adaptable. By knowing when to ask for help when you’re unsure what to prioritize or de-prioritize, you’ll be able to differentiate between daily vs. important vs. urgent tasks.

Always remember: managing priorities is supposed to create success, not stress!