Are You Triaging or Prioritizing Your Work?

If triage is all you ever do, you’re never going to get to the strategic priorities that will enable you to achieve your goals.

If you’ve ever had to make a trip to the emergency room (hopefully not) or watched a medical drama on TV (probably so), you’ve seen a team of doctors, nurses and other team members doing triage.

Triage is the process of assessing which patients need immediate treatment or attention and which can wait until after the more urgent cases are addressed. It’s a big reason why you might end up hanging out in the waiting room for hours if you go to the ER with the flu or to get some other non-life-threatening condition treated. The patients who are literally knocking on death’s door are going to be seen before you.

I’ve been thinking about triage lately as I’ve been working with my executive coaching clients. Just about every leader I work with is operating in an environment where they and their teams have more to accomplish than the time available to do it all. So, they spend a lot of effort prioritizing their work. I’ve concluded, though, that what a lot of them are doing is not really prioritizing but triaging. Here’s the difference between the two.

When you’re triaging your work you’re often focused on failure points. You’re looking for things that need to be done right now because not doing them creates failure points that start a chain reaction of dominoes falling. Leading with the triage approach leaves you feeling like you’re always fighting the latest fire and not really moving things forward. You and your team end up spending most of your time and attention on the urgent stuff that’s right in front of you.

Truly prioritizing your work requires you to start with a different time focus. Instead of focusing on what’s crying out for attention right now, prioritization begins with a focus on where you want to end up. That requires taking a deep breath, slowing down and asking, “What are we trying to accomplish this year and what will the outcomes look like when we accomplish that?” Your answers to that question create a picture of the desired end state. From there, you can reverse engineer back to identify what needs to be accomplished this quarter, this month, this week and even this day to create a successful set of outcomes for the year. That process enables you and your team to get clear about your true priorities.

I’m not suggesting there isn’t a place for triage. Sometimes things blow up and you’ve got to make some quick decisions about what needs to get done first. But if triage is all you ever do, you’re never going to get to the strategic priorities that will enable you to achieve your goals. If you think you’ve got an opportunity to do more prioritizing and less triaging, get started by taking 30 minutes this week to consider what you and your team are trying to accomplish this year and reverse engineer back from that picture to set some shorter-term priorities.

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