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Applying ‘Triage’ principles to ensure the right way of working

What is the Right Way of Working?

‘Ways of Working’ can sound like a vague concept and the terms ‘Right Work’ and ‘Right Way of Working’ can seem abstract or idealistic.  That is because, clearly there is no single right way of working. 

What is ‘right’ for one team may not be right for another.  Moreover, what is ‘right’ for one type of work may not be ‘right’ for another.

With this in mind, let’s explore an approach to determine the optimal Way of Working based on the requirements of success and the nature of the work to be done.

Executives are getting busier and busier, with an endless procession of meeting invites, emails and IMs. But what happens when an ever-expanding list of tasks, projects and priorities meets with a constrained (indeed sometime shrinking) pool of available time and resources? Well, two things can happen:

  • Peoples spread themselves & their resources thinly across everything
  • Focus your efforts & resources on those areas that are most important

If we try to do everything we will fail, or at least get frustrated. Not everything can be done and certainly not at the same time. Saying ‘no’ or ‘not now’ to certain tasks, projects or priorities is essential. Deliberate choices and tradeoffs need to be made. That is what Triage is about.

Triage is an elevated form of planning, where choices, decisions and tradeoffs are grappled with up front.

How to plan for the Right Work & Way of Working?

No doubt you are familiar with the term ‘triage’.  It is generally used in a medical environment to decide the order and nature of treatment of patients. For example, it ensures that those with the most serious conditions are treated first.

The idea of ‘triage’ can also be applied to any task list, work stream or project. It is an approach to planning what needs to be done, how it needs to be done and when it needs to be done, etc.  This is based on the acronym ICU, which stands for:

To determine the Right Work and the Right Way of Working you first need to assess the work based on these 3 ICU criterion.

The right way of working depends on the nature and the requirements of the work. The two examples above require different approaches.

Naturally, when the work is complex and important, it must be approached with greater care, as shown below. The work often requires slowing down to speed up. Typically, it requires more thinking, teamwork and collaboration.

Importance – What Matters Most?

What matters most should not be at the mercy of what matters least.  There are few that would disagree with this statement of the obvious. However, putting it into effect in the workplace is a real challenge.

As executives our priorities, projects and plans routinely put what matters most at the mercy of what matters least. The same applies to our task lists, calendars and even our inboxes. Indeed, executives tell us that they are spending between a third and a half of their time on work that adds little or no value ((Pitstop Analytics data gathered from clients during the course of 2021)). Meanwhile, their key projects and initiatives are starved of time and attention.

Thus, the first thing to consider in planning work is the level of importance. The work that matters most should come first when it comes to the allocation of time, attention and resources. 

Prioritization is key, but it is also not easy. Indeed, it is one of the brain’s most energy-hungry processes. It burns calories like a workout at the gym. Little wonder then that we can struggle with it. Indeed, researchers have shown that performance on this task can be significantly improved by taking lemonade sweetened with either glucose or a sugar substitute.  Time-of-the-day also matters – prioritization is an activity that is best done when energy levels are high1.

What is it that determines importance?  Well, the link to success or results is obviously a key factor. In this context it is important is to consider the impact – both business impact (link) and people impact (link). This tends to be a higher bar in terms of importance because it focuses on the implications or likely result. Risk may be another factor, also the needs or expectations of stakeholders. 

Considering Complexity

Complexity is the next factor to be considered in planning work and determining the ‘right’ way of working. 

Gauging the complexity of the work is important to effective planning for many reasons:

  • It is easy to underestimate the time, energy and attention, as well as the resources required – the twin dangers of hidden complexity and misplaced confidence
  • Complex tasks are more difficult to plan and predict, you need to add a contingency and adjust your estimates as you go.
  • A successful outcome is not guaranteed and certainly not the time that has been allocated.  The process may be two steps forward and one one step back.
  • Complex work is likely to require 2-3 times the effort of standard non-routine tasks – that is not physical but cognitive effort (including thinking think, creative problem solving and innovation).
  • Complex work requires focused time and attention – allocating blocks of uninterrupted time is important.  It is also going to be important to tackle this work when energy levels are high (e.g. earlier in the week or the day).
  • A number of different perspectives are likely to be required, requiring greater collaboration and a diversity of experience/expertise.

Complex work is likely to require a more sophisticated approach to planning as well as to execution.  Conforming to the process won’t be enough, what worked before may not be a guide.

Complex means that the outcome cannot be guaranteed – things don’t happen in a linear and predictable fashion. When the work is complex it is easy to underestimate what is required, how long they will take, or what they will cost.

‘Other’ Work

There is important and complex work and then there is ‘other’ work. Knowing ‘which is which’ is key.

If the work matters then, it matters how it is done, when it is done and how it is done.  Conversely, if the work is not important then how it is done, when it is done and who does it are not important either. This is reflected in the way of working – as in the example below.

For work that is straight-forward, a ‘just do it’ approach can be adopted. Little planning may be necessary.  It is simply a matter of repeating what worked before, following the steps and making it happen.  It is predictable and routine, with a low level of risk involved.

Urgency

The third factor to consider is Urgency.  Obviously, this is a key factor, but it cannot be the principal consideration.  

Just because a task needs to be finished next week does not make it important. There may be many more important tasks that get neglected simply because they don’t have a pressing short term deadline.

A work environment driven by constant urgency tends to be short-sighted, reactive and inefficient. 

Moreover, the quality of important and complex work may suffer if done under time pressure may suffer.

Explore Importance, Complexity and Urgency, including their implications using the carousel below:

ICU’d – What about dependencies?

There is one further aspect of work triage and it is dependencies. 

Identifying and planning for dependencies at an early stage is key.  There is no point planning or scheduling work only to find out when you are about to start that you need other things to happen first. 

Such external dependencies might include availability of resources, approval by a committee, completion of a prior phase of the work and so on.

Identifying and tackling dependencies up front is important to prevent delays and setbacks later on. It is one of the key reasons for planning ahead.

Adding ‘Messiness’

Some people go one step further and add an M (i.e. ICU MD). The M stands for ‘Messyness’. Messy is the opposite of straightforward, with any of the following words applying: chaotic, convoluted, intricate, difficult, confusing, unpleasant, bitter, nasty, even tortuous.

When it is ‘messy’ the right work, the right way of working or even the right result may be unclear or in flux. Perhaps it may feel like two steps forward and one step back. There may also be issues of personalities or politics involved.

Complex and messy are closely related. However, messy often means an element of added frustration. A high level of messiness has a number of implications:

  • Planning becomes more difficult – expect surprises and setbacks. An iterative (Plan – Do – Review) approach is important.
  • Estimates of how long it might take or what it will cost could be far off the mark. Forecasts will be need to be revised often.
  • You may find yourself ‘scratching your head’.
  • It may be difficult to make a decision – there is no right/obvious answer.
  • This is work that you might be likely to put off. It is work that will likely drain energy and motivation.
  • There may be a lot of noise and interference around this work. It may be the source of tension, conflict and disagreement.
  • Keeping our ‘head in the game’ may be a challenge. The risk of under-performace and error may be higher.

Why does ICU’d matter? 

The way you are working must match the requirements of the work in terms of ICU.  If not the quality and efficiency of the work will suffer.  You are likely to be frustrated and unable to leverage your full talent and skill to maximum

The goal is to optimize both the flow and the efficiency of work.  That includes minimizing wasted time, motivation, talent, creativity as well the organization’s money and other resources. 

It also means preventing shocks and surprises, by ensuring the optimal flow of work – that it is as consistent, predictable and manageable as possible.

It is not just about maximum efficiency and minimum waste.  Another important goal is to maximize value creation – to fully leverage talent, creativity & innovation. 

Also, to unlock the potential of the people involved, reduce pressure and enable them to thrive, develop and grow through their work.

Another goal may be to minimize work in progress (WIP) that is work that:

  • you cannot take credit (or get rewarded) for
  • that is speculative or may not fully materialise
  • that does not impact on results (within the required time horizon)
  • that represents low value or non-value adding work.

Of course, minimizing work in progress does not mean eliminating it.  You often need to ‘pay it forward’—undertaking work today that will be important in the future.  This is where the timing and the recognition of work matters.

  1. David Rock, ‘Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long’, HarperBusiness, Oct 6, 2009. []

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