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How to prioritize what really matters when hiring

Prioritization – it’s one of those terms that is often seen as synonymous with ‘compromise’. And when you hear ‘prioritize’ you may think – “no! It’s a waste of time to prioritize as I need it all, so I will hold out until I find it all.” That car, that computer, that perfect vacation package, that candidate… I can have it all – I just have to look harder.

And that could work… sometimes. But many times, reality eventually sets in. There is no option for ‘everything’ given budget, time, and other constraints. This is especially true for humans as (and I know this is surprising) we are not perfect.

Prioritization is what allows us to avoid wasting weeks or months looking for that unicorn or purple squirrel or [pick favorite metaphor to describe non-existent thing], while enabling fantastic, impactful, realistic hires.

But prioritization is hard when working with lists of “everything is super important” items required for current alignment of skills and abilities, future potential, and cultural fit.

Here are a few prioritization techniques that can help.

But first…

Start with the list

Before jumping into any prioritization exercise, start with the list of things to prioritize.

To do this:

  1. Identify all items of importance for final candidate selection. This includes skills, knowledge, abilities, strengths, etc.

  2. Remove all items that will not help to distinguish one candidate over another because all candidates have equal or equal enough of it. This includes any minimum requirements, initial filter criteria, shared skills, abilities, knowledge, strengths, etc.

  3. For the remaining items, clearly described each along with the reason for why it’s important / on the list.

The goal is to ensure everyone involved in prioritization has a clear understanding of the intent and purpose of each item, otherwise, you could end up wasting a lot of time talking past one another and incorrectly prioritizing items.

For example:

Bad items: “strong management skills”

Why: Too much room for interpretation in both the skill and level. What is ‘strong’ and what is included in ‘management skills’? If different people have different interpretations, how can it be compared and prioritized?

Better item: “Experience managing teams over twenty people with at least two levels of hierarchy. Demonstrated proficiency at driving high productivity and high employee satisfaction of team and cultivating talent through greater achievements and promotions of team members.”

Once you have the list of all the items, you are ready to prioritize.

The universal tips for prioritization

No matter the prioritization technique used, there are a few universal tips that can really help.

  1. Engage the decision maker(s). Identify the person who will decide on the outcome of the thing being prioritized (such as the hiring manager for new hires) and involve them in the prioritization process. The more they feel the prioritization is theirs, the more likely they are to approve it. If you have multiple decision makers (or influencers that must weigh in), Involving everyone together in a facilitated group effort so prioritization doesn’t turn into a continuous argument through you.

  2. Facilitate the effort. In many cases, prioritizing ‘MUST’ have items is difficult and accompanied by strong opinions or an overwhelming desire to avoid the task. Therefore, emailing the list and asking for it to be prioritized usually doesn’t work. Set a meeting and work with the individual or team. As with any facilitated activity, make the goal clear, have an agenda that outlines the approach, and set the rules.

  3. Use movable visuals. As the exercise is to order or reorder items on a list to set priority, the easier it is to visualize the order, the easier it will be to react to it. For example, you can make physical or virtual cards/sticky notes for each item so you can easily shift and reorder them.

  4. Use deadlines with validation/approval. When sending the prioritized list for final validation/approval, include a clear call to action and a deadline. The deadline will force a decision point and keep the task from dragging on. “Please review this list and send approval or feedback / change requests by xyz date. No response by xyz date will be the equivalent of an approval.”

So, what techniques can you apply these universal tips to?

Great question!

Prioritization Technique: The If game

  1. Spread out all the items in front of the prioritization team and ask the IF question “If the hire will only be fantastic at one thing, what must it be?” a. If one card is selected, put it aside. b. If more than one item is selected, put the selected cards in front of the group and facilitate a short debate to drive a decision on the one selection.

  2. With the remaining cards, ask the IF question again (repeat Step 1)

  3. With each selected card, put it below the last until you have a full prioritized list

  4. At the end, have the team to review the resulting list. Ask if anything should change and allow for reordering (if there is agreement)

Variation of the ‘IF game’

If the ‘IF’ question stalls out (i.e. the team can’t answer the question with the cards in front of them) change the question.

  • Bottom-up approach: “If we must give up one thing to get the best candidate, what is it?” – selected cards are at the bottom of the priority list, rather than the top.

  • Complementary approach: “What is the one skill that will most help/complement the team”

  • Avoidance approach: “If there is only one thing you can’t get wrong/fail, what is it?”

Prioritization Technique: The vote

  1. Give each member of the prioritization team a number of coins or other small objects to use to ‘vote’.

  2. Have each member of the team use those objects to vote on their highest priorities by placing the object beside the item they are voting for. a. Voters must use all their objects. b. Voters may place as many objects as they want by any of the items. For example, a voter can give one vote to each of many items, or all their votes to the same item or split their votes evenly among three items, etc.

  3. Count the votes for each item then place the items in order based on how many votes they receive.

  4. Repeat the voting process for any tied scores (including the items that scored zero).

  5. Repeat until all items are ranked in order

Prioritization Technique: “Which would you rather”

Note: this technique is best used as a validation or refinement step on a list that already has some level of prioritization but can be used on its own.

  1. Arrange the items in a list

  2. Compare the relative priority of the first two items (in slot #1 and slot #2) – “which would you rather have (or which is more important) #1 or #2 a. If the slot #1 is more important, leave the two items as is. b. If the slot #2 is more important, swap the two items so the more important item is first.

  3. Repeat with items #2 and #3

  4. Repeat with items #3 and #4… etc. until the list is exhausted.

  5. Start back at items #1 and #2 and repeat the process down the list

  6. Stop when there are no swaps of any items

Prioritization Technique: Comparing consequences

A variant of the “IF game”:

  1. For each item, answer what would happen if the new employee does not have the item or fails to achieve the item.

  2. Compare the consequences of not having the item and choose the most important item to avoid and place the item at the top of the list.

  3. Repeat, of the ones remaining which consequence is most important to avoid and add to the list.

  4. Continue until the list is complete.

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