How To Make Better Decisions? Learn To Triage

There’s a core concept to strategic thinking that’s not always fully appreciated: the best strategies aren’t just about what your business does, they’re about what your business does Not do.

Praised as Apple has been, I’ve seen few of its admirers point out something essential in the company’s strategy: Yes, Apple makes beautiful, design-driven products that are must-haves for a large segment of our population, but Apple is intended for most Not in the business of repairing these products after the warranty period has expired. I learned this reality years ago when my beloved iPod Shuffle clip form stopped working; Apple could fix it for me, the Genius told me, but then suggested I just buy a new one a lot of less than the repair costs. Many companies (e.g. car dealerships) see maintenance and repairs as a large part of their profit stream, but Apple has apparently decided to outsource repairs (see the proliferation of “iFix It” stores) so that they can focus on their actual tasks can focus competitive advantage.

As executives, our jobs don’t typically require us to make fundamental decisions like Apple’s on a regular basis, but we do have to make important strategic decisions on a weekly or even daily basis: which projects get funding and which don’t; how to direct resources; where we can focus our employees’ (and ourselves) time and effort; how to communicate important decisions to key stakeholders.

One way to make these decisions better is to learn it triage. As Alan Jacobs explains in his excellent book to break bread with the dead: A Reader’s Guide to a Quieter Mind:

“Triage –… a French word meaning to separate and sort – is what nurses and medics do on the battlefield: during and after a battle, when wounded soldiers pour in, a medical unit’s limited resources are severely tested. The medical staff must learn to judge immediately: this person must be treated now, one person can wait a little longer, a third person has to wait longer, preferably somewhere else than in the first-aid tent. To the wounded soldier, this system will often appear imperative and harsh, unmerciful and perhaps even cruel; but it is imperative that the nurses and doctors be ruthlessly bold. They cannot afford to see a soldier die while comforting one whose injuries are not life threatening.”

Business leaders may not always have lives at stake, but effective leadership means learning how to make difficult decisions and compromises quickly and correctly.

Years ago, I was working with a client’s executive team when Meghan Lapides (who is now SmartAsset’s Chief People Officer and is still a good friend and trusted advisor) taught me a great tool to make better decisions:


The framework is powerful but easy to use. Before you make an important and particularly resource-intensive decision, ask yourself:

– Does this thing have to be done now?

– Should this be done soon, but maybe after something more important is done?

– Can we move this thing around for a while? (Ideally to create a better situation for success, or because we can’t take care of it right now due to other priorities.)

– Is this something that even if it’s a pet project or has been a good idea in the past, we should agree to let it go and not do it at all?

(Note: There’s another dimension here worth considering, which my friend and co-author John Hillen, a veteran CEO and board director, recently reminded me of. That’s order can sometimes affect prioritization – or vice versa – when it comes to dependencies. That is, your prioritization can sometimes rearrange the now-next-never-later calculus John told me a story about leading a strategic prioritization exercise for a company, which executives just in time recognized priority #8 had to be done to activate priority #2. So remember that “priority” can refer to timing as well as importance.)

I experienced a strong triaging example a few years ago when the founders of a successful and well-known FinTech company asked me for help. Their goal was to improve leadership and execution in a fast-growing and well-funded start-up (not an uncommon challenge – it’s all about scaling), and the problem they encountered caused them great pain.

The problem was that the leadership team had set five key strategic goals earlier in the year, and well into the fourth quarter it was clear that they were unlikely to achieve any of them. After some analysis of the problem and discussions with the senior team, the root cause of the problem became clear: It wasn’t what they were trying to do too much ofbut that they tried too much at once. They launched all five initiatives in January and quickly ran out of bandwidth as new and unexpected challenges demanded senior management’s attention. If they had triaged, their results would have been far better: for example, launching two initiatives in Q1; ramping up the third imitation in the second quarter and maybe the fourth initiative after Labor Day; and maybe even the fifth (a good idea, but not one that’s likely to boost near-term revenue or curb churn) until January. “Now, next and later (or maybe never?)”

Successful people and successful organizations share a common tragic flaw: they try to do too much, and often too much at once. Like battlefield medics, if we learn to triage and even say “no” to some things, painful as it may be, our success will be accelerated and our results improved.

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