Time Triage for Planning Managers

"Triage" is a word normally used to describe a doctor's time allocation decisions in a medical emergency. Planning managers don't deal with immediate life and death issues, but they do need to figure out where to put their time and attention.

Prioritizing Tasks Enhances Efficiency

Planners entering management positions often have a sense that an overwhelming number of issues require attention. They must decide which of those are paramount and precedent-setting, and which can be addressed with minimal effort, delay, or even ignored. Some issues go away on their own. Discerning between these three scenarios is key to time triage.

Of course, staff-level planners know how to manage their time — public sector planners balance caseloads and consultants attend to billable hour requirements. Yet managers face new challenges. Here are some key areas for time triage.

Personnel issues

An effective team can make management a delight. The question is how to get there.

What percentage of time should you allocate to hiring, promoting, and mentoring stellar employees? What percentage of time should you spend correcting, disciplining, or firing ineffective or destructive employees?

Normally, more time should be devoted to the former, but if one employee's poor performance affects the whole team, you might have to spend more time on the latter. Employee retention also deserves attention, since it can reduce time devoted to recruiting and training.

Quality control

Managers are responsible for the quality of their unit's work. They shouldn't micromanage, but oversight is required. Reports must be accurate, customer service must be responsive, and plans must be effective. The question is how to ensure this quality. One way is to invest time in designing work process improvements that reduce mistakes and improve collaboration within and among departments.


Staff members hope new managers will solve the problems they perceive in their department or agency. Perhaps the previous manager would not take on an issue that has existed for years.

Deciding on which problems to solve requires strategic decisions. What is the potential payoff and what is the cost in time used?

Too much time responding to problems means that visioning, innovating, team-building, and professional development get short shrift.

Relationship building

Time spent in a manager's unit should not crowd out efforts to develop outside relationships. In government, affiliations with other departments are vital, just as they are across divisions of large consulting firms. Planning managers complete for department resources with units that may have more clout, such as police and fire departments in cities, or engineering units in consulting firms. Relationships draw attention to the good work your department is doing.

Time triage is an essential skill for new planning managers. Mastering the skill of making good time decisions will help you become a planning leader who gets things done.

This blog series is amplified in Richard Willson's book, A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career. The book includes perspectives, tools, advice, and personal anecdotes. It is available now at Routledge, Amazon, and most retailers.

Top image: Getty Images photo.

About the Author
Richard Willson, FAICP, is a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Cal Poly Pomona. He has also served as department chair, interim dean, and independent planning consultant. Willson's research addresses planning practice and parking policy.

October 15, 2019

By Richard Willson, FAICP