Stop trying to fix the unfixable whether they are projects, programs, businesses, or people.

In general, triage involves sorting victims into those that don’t need help now, do need help now, and can’t be helped. The critical choice is between those needing help now (“immediate”) or not needing help now because they either don’t need help at all, have issues that are “minor,” can wait (“delayed,”) or are beyond help.

The analogy works in all sorts of different corporate settings and the lesson is the same. It’s generally easier to sort between those issues that can wait and those needing attention now than it is to sort between those needing attention now and those beyond help.

The #1 regret experienced leaders have is not moving fast enough on people. In particular, they regret spending too much time trying to “save” an employee that was beyond help.


Resource allocation across normally distributed results

Imagine a group of people, projects, programs, business units or the like with normally distributed results: 10-20% doing great, 60-80% doing fine, and 10-20% struggling. The question is where to invest your time, effort and resources.

Some will want to help those struggling. It’s the natural, compassionate, caring answer. It’s partially right for the short-term and painfully wrong for the long-term.

For the short-term, it does make sense to help those that can be helped with an intervention. Save the savable so they can contribute down the road.

At the same time, cut off the unsavable as soon as practical so you can deploy your scarce resources to people, projects, programs, business units or the like with higher returns on the investment of your time, effort, money and the like.

The long-term risk is that any resource you deploy against those struggling takes away from resources for those doing great.


Market investment

You have an incremental million dollars to spend. Do you put in a market in which you have a 5% share of 50% share?

You’re almost always better investing in the market with the 50% share. If you can accelerate your growth by 10% in the 5% share market, you’ll end up with a 5.5% share. If you can accelerate your growth by 10% in the 50% share market, you’ll end up with a 55% share. (Yes. I’m grossly over-simplifying this. But the point is valid.)


Invest in those doing great

The market investment analogy highlights the issue with getting distracted by struggling people, projects, programs and businesses. They take away from those doing great. This is animal school stuff. Fight the tendency to converge on the mean, average ducks.


Practical application

PEOPLE: Push yourself to invest more in your top performers. Help them become even better. Do intervene to help those struggling that can be helped. Intervene with short, targeted efforts and then back off. Avoid wasting time on those that can’t be helped. Move faster on them, helping them get to new roles or organizations in which they can succeed.

PROJECTS and PROGRAMS: Invest more of your time and resources in projects and programs that are delivering to help them accelerate progress or go even further. Don’t get sucked into spending your own time on projects and programs that are struggling. Instead, help them get the human, technical, operational and financial resources they need to succeed and back off.

Cut losing projects and programs early. Capture the learning and re-direct those resources to other projects and programs that can succeed.

BUSINESSES: Corporate development or private equity “deal” people have two jobs: 1) Do good deals; 2) Keep the organization from doing bad deals. Investing time, money and effort into a due diligence to figure out the deal won’t work is a win.

The same is true after the deal is done. Avoid the sunk cost fallacy, thinking you need to keep investing to make your earlier investments work. Instead, evaluate every business on a go-forward basis. Your future investment includes: the opportunity cost of what you could get by selling it now, and the time, effort and money you and your team are going to put into it.

Ultimately, this is about the application of corporate triage, deploying resources where they can do the most good and having the highest return on investment.


Click here for a list of my Forbes articles (of which this is #785) and a summary of my book on executive onboarding: The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan.


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