Situational Triage: Judging Current Conditions

The TV series M.A.S.H. was not just a funny comedy; it also depicted advancements in field medicine including the practice of triage. As the helicopters and trucks arrived with the wounded, the doctors and nurses would check each patient and determine whose injury needed to be attended to first. Recent mass casualty events remind me of this process and the value of astute professional medical judgment.

Judgment has several meanings. When attributed to leaders such as Solomon or financial wizards, judgment implies the ability to make wise decisions. In other implications, it can mean a punishment or misfortune, such as a court’s judgment. The distinction between wisdom and calamity depends on whether a wise or imprudent decision was rendered. In the medical profession, doctors have the advantage of training over three years of medical school and internships to form discerned evaluations of patients. Unfortunately, most organizational leaders do not have the same opportunity to fine tune their assessments. Certainly, college and tenure boost judgment, but habit and past practice frequently dull it.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) reports that in 2020 52% of jobs will require complex cognitive abilities and  judgment. Repetitive and dangerous jobs will be assigned to AI ‘Artificial Intelligence’ enhanced robots and further automation, leaving people to handle the sensitive, challenging, creative and critical tasks. The exact list of skills for a strong career advantage in the near future can be found HERE.

Preparing for the future raises the question of how we train our employees to handle these daunting duties. On-the-job training, apprenticeships, and career ladders will contribute. However, there is also a need to offer new frameworks and practices to cope with increasingly thorny multifaceted issues. Muddling through or depending on established practices will not suffice. Interpreting current realities, seeing around the corner, detecting patterns and revealing opportunities and risks will be essential.

In his 6th century, Sun  Tzu wrote The Art of War and highlighted the importance of understanding the terrain, or situational analysis. He pointed to the need for agility to cope with changing realities by saying:  

Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.”

Traditional developmental models center on personal insights and skills to enhanced judgment. However, a missing element is an essential focus on analyzing the current situation. Certainly, there are many decision-making processes that offer a logical progression of using past data to resolve a problem, yet few frameworks exist to read the current conditions and future opportunities. We need to develop methods to carefully assess current situations which guide us to detect what is possible and identify what is feasible and valuable.

A situational analysis model, using the triage process bolsters complex and critical thinking. It also invalidates any assumption that advanced thinking depends on a high IQ or an office in the C-suite.  Medical doctors and nurses use a checklist to assess their patients’ conditions including respiration, vital signs, and mental stability. Likewise, organizations can develop their situational triage process using a checklist to collect key data points to identify where urgent action is needed.

We must focus on improving judgment, since the rate of change clouds opportunities and risks. Deciphering the critical from the merely important requires a greater level of situational understanding and prioritization. If we fail to triage our current situation, we may find ourselves, like those who fought Sun Tzu,  displeased with the outcome.


Dr. Mary Lippitt
Dr. Mary Lippitt
Dr. Mary Lippitt is an award-winning author of "Brilliant or Blunder: 6 Ways Leaders Navigate Uncertainty, Opportunity, and Complexity.” She founded Enterprise Management Ltd. in 1984 to provide leaders with practical and effective solutions to navigate the modern business climate using situational mastery. Dr. Lippitt is a thought leader and speaker on executing change, optimal leadership, and situational analysis. She currently teaches in the MBA program at the University of South Florida. Mary is also the author of Situational Mindsets: Targeting What Matters When It Matters.

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  1. Good points. Medicine uses EBP — Evidence Based Practices. They collect data points for both desirable outcomes and undesirable ones. One is if they are progressing on track with the treatment / intervention. The other is if they are eliminating the undesirable outcomes, the very reasons they are providing the treatment / intervention to begin with. In psychiatry they use the same approach for behaviour modification. I’ve used EBP for leadership assessments.