Six Strategic Lenses for Prioritization

Prioritization in complex organizations is challenging. This article describes six lenses through which you can view and explain your strategic thinking process.

You likely automatically use some of the lenses described in this article in your work. The strategic lenses simply provide a framework for you to be more intentional about how and why you prioritize one issue over another. When this understanding is shared by your team, you can all use a common language to discuss choices and decisions, craft and refine strategy, and ultimately maximize impact. Incorporating these lenses into your discussions will enable you to maximize efficiency, engagement, consensus, and buy-in.

The Six Strategic Lenses

The Urgency Lens

Used to prioritize which activities are the most immediate priorities.

Questions for Discussion: What will happen if you ignore the issue at hand? How important is it that a decision is instituted immediately? Look at potential programs and decisions through the significance of the intervention, and the need for it to be implemented swiftly and without delay.

The Sequential Building Block Lens

Used to prioritize which activities are prerequisites for other priorities.

Questions for Discussion: What actions and activities must occur before other interventions can be initiated? Progress toward the end goal is made one building block at a time. As such, nonpriority activities maybe a prerequisite for success in another important area.

The Relationship Building Lens

Used to prioritize which activities are priorities for other stakeholders and will build goodwill.

Questions for Discussion: While the priority may not be at the top of your list, it may be beneficial to identify interventions that are top priorities of other stakeholders. By viewing decisions through a relationship building lens, you build alliances and goodwill that may support future challenges.

The Feasibility Lens

Used to prioritize which activities are doable with the resources available and in relation to other priorities. 

Questions for Discussion: Is a proposed activity achievable given the available resources? Will the current environment allow the team to implement the activities and achieve its agreed upon goals? Consider how probable success is when making decisions.

The Team Commitment Lens

Used to prioritize the activities with strong commitment and enthusiasm.

Questions for Discussion: Take advantage of existing interest for tackling projects and prioritize those activities above others. Despite pressing workloads, the existing levels of energy and enthusiasm for an initiative may be more likely to render the activity successful.

The Potential Impact Lens

Used to prioritize which activities could achieve significant impact.

Questions for Discussion: Compared to other interventions, which have the greatest payoffs? Target interventions that could have the greatest impact on the team’s mission.

Applying the Strategic Lenses

The strategic lenses provide a framework for considering and explaining what criteria you value in a particular deliberation, and how you prioritize those criteria. Follow the steps below to apply the lenses to generate discussion, explain rationale and criteria for potential decisions, and come to consensus on strategy.

Introduce the six strategic thinking lenses

  • Brainstorm together, or by topic group, a list of all the possible interventions the team is considering. Make the list(s) visible (e.g., posted on a wall). 
  • Explain that your task, as a group, is to sort through these possibilities strategically.
  • Introduce the six strategic thinking lenses and ask participants to think of each lens as bringing clarity from one angle. 

Divide into topic groups

  • Divide the larger group into topic groups. Keep the groups to 6 people.

Assign one lens to each of the members of the topic group

  • Assign each member of the topic group a different lens. In the next step, they will represent the topic group’s thinking when divided into lens specific groups.

Divide participants into lens specific groups

Depending on the size of your participant group, two or more participants may now be assigned to each lens. Explain that each lens is assigned a different color:

  • Lens #1 (Urgency): Red
  • Lens #2 (Building Block): Blue
  • Lens #3 (Relationship Building): Green
  • Lens #4 (Feasibility): Orange
  • Lens #5 (Commitment): Yellow
  • Lens #6 (Potential Impact): Black

Provide each lens group with the appropriate colored marker or dots to indicate that they feel the intervention is important when viewed through their lens. 

Invite the lens-specific groups to review the lists of interventions

  • Explain to each group that they must agree whether to place a dot next to a particular intervention indicating that it is important when viewed through their lens.
  • Each group may use an unlimited number of dots, but they should apply each dot wisely. Only one dot should be placed per intervention.
  • By placing the dot next to an intervention, the group is collectively saying there is a need for the intervention according to their assigned strategic lens.

Facilitate a discussion about what the different colored dots and cluster of dots reveal

  • Start this discussion by asking each lens-specific group to give some highlights regarding what they learned by only looking through their assigned lens. Highlights should be brief, and don’t dwell on the placement of specific dots.

Discuss what the placement, patterns and cluster of dots reveal regarding strategic priorities

This is the heart of the conversation and decision-making exercise. Ask people to put aside their specific lens and facilitate a group discussion. Use the questions below as a guide.

  • What are we seeing with the placement of dots in each topic area?
  • Across the topic areas, where are the greatest concentrations of dots?
  • What surprises are there for you, if any?

Responses to these questions will help surface preliminary conclusions about how the team is seeing priorities. The intent of these questions is to quickly reveal any conflicting perspectives about priorities. These conflicting perspectives should be acknowledged, and not debated.

The next set of questions will help bring greater understanding about specific priorities and could change perspectives or mute potential debate.

  • What is your reaction to where the red dots (urgency) are placed?
  • What clusters of dots have both a red and a blue dot (building block)?
  • What is the message about these clusters?

Using these questions will help the participants to illuminate perceptions of urgency across the program by asking what they think will need to be addressed first.

If an intervention has both red and blue color dots, ask if this may be a top priority. If so, place a large check mark next to that activity.

  • What clusters have a red (urgency), blue (building block) and black (potential impact) dot? 
  • What is the message about these clusters? 

The black dots add perceptions of significant impact to the check-marked first priorities. Circle in red the needs and interventions with all three dots – red, blue and black. 

  • Ask participants to share perspectives about what the cluster of these three dots says to them. 
  • If the cluster also includes a green, orange or yellow dot, ask what these additional dots say. 

Any of these three – the relationship building, feasibility or commitment lenses magnifies the power of the merged lens focused on an important strategic priority. 

There will also be important strategic priorities that will not have a red or blue dot. They may not be seen as urgent or as a building block to other goals.

  • What is your reaction to where other black dots are placed?
  • If they are with a cluster of green, orange or yellow, what messages to these additional dots convey?

This discussion will help to pinpoint these additional important strategic priorities. If these needs and interventions also include a green, orange or yellow dot, ask what these additional dots reveal. If the group agrees the need for intervention is also an important strategic priority, circle it in red also.

  • What is the overall picture we see emerging?

This question will help you cement the conclusions about strategic priorities emerging from the strategic lenses exercise.