When trying to communicate, we sometimes use the same word thinking that it means the same thing to everyone. But words are slippery, multivalent things. I can speak a word with one meaning and you might hear it with another. The result is the illusion of communication.

As a leader you must be aware that your words can be taken in different ways. In one kind of culture, people might look for the most sinister possible interpretation and assume that’s what you must have meant. Even in a healthy culture, it is possible for you to say the exact same thing to two different people and they still end up disagreeing about your intended message.

I’ve been thinking about the word “priority” and its multiple meanings. It’s a word that comes up frequently. Everyone in your organization deserves a clear understanding of priorities and how their work connects to the organization’s goals. However, I’ve identified at least four distinctly different meanings of “priority”.


Priority-as-sequence means we will do all of priority 1, then all of priority 2, and so on. In a small team or startup, this might be the only useful definition.

It is the sense of a recipe: chopping vegetables is the first priority, then you can saute them.


As allocation, “priority” means we will spend the majority of our time on the top priority, a lesser amount on the second priority, and so on. This might be fractions of a week for a single team, or it might be allocation of headcount across an organization.

This is the sense we mean when we say “health is a priority” or “family is a priority”. We don’t literally plan to “finish all our health first, then all our family”. Instead it is a statement about how we intend to spend our time.


In this sense, a list of priorities is a pre-decided ordering of trade-offs. When priority 1 and priority 2 are in tension, we know to make the trade-off in favor of priority 1. This somewhat intersects with priority-as-allocation, if the trade-off in question is “where do I devote my time”. However it is distinct when the question at hand is something like “do I optimize for performance or cost?”

The image here is buying a car. You might have “appearance” as a priority over “reliability” or vice versa.


Priority can also mean “the boundary of what I care about at all.” The list of priorities gives you permission to say “no” to other demands. If your organization–like so many others–is drowning under excess WIP and a years-long backlog, people will eagerly adopt this meaning of priority. (Even if what you meant was “allocation” or “trade-offs”.)

The image here is a backpack for hiking. There are only so many things that will fit into it. Bringing a tennis racket is probably not a priority.


As with any question of definitions, none of these is more right than others. The key is to make sure you have a shared understanding so that everyone has clarity and can work toward the same purpose.