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Ways of Working: 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 concept of a ‘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 nature and requirements of the work to be done.

How to plan for the Right 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 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.

Important & Complex Work

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.

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. 

What is it that determines importance?  Well, the link to success or results is obviously a key factor.  Risk may be another factor, also the needs or expectations of stakeholders. 

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

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.

Separating Important & Complex from ‘Other’ Work is a critical first step. 

‘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.


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.

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.

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