Let's Get Our Priorities Straight

Have you ever watched someone spinning plates? There's clearly quite an art to it.

However, even for a plate spinning amateur such as myself, there's something strangely familiar about it. I see Erich Brenn rushing around the stage on The Ed Sullivan Show and I'm reminded of my days in veterinary practice. It occurred to me, that whether you're a veterinarian, a veterinary receptionist or a veterinary nurse - whether you know it or not - you are a champion plate spinner! Except you're playing a higher stakes game. Your plates are people and patients.

Part of the joy of watching a plate spinner is the risk that at any moment it could all come crashing down around their ears. On the other hand, this also precisely describes the pit-of-your-stomach, stressful aspects of working in a veterinary clinic.

But does it have to be like that? Surely, like most things in veterinary medicine, there's an art and science to it that we can learn. Well, yes and no.

Let's start with the good news. The art and science of prioritisation has been well studied. Dwight D. Eisenhower talked for many of us when he said: "I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent."

Eisenhower Matrix

Management consultants, as is their way, put this insight into a 2-by-2 matrix, leaving us with four kinds of problem:

  1. The non-urgent, unimportant - you can safely get rid of these. If it's neither urgent nor important why is it cluttering your inbox?

  2. The urgent, unimportant - consider if there's someone else better placed to do it. If possible, delegate it to someone to whom it will feel more important.

  3. The urgent, important - sorry, yup, these you've got to do!

  4. The non-urgent but important - hmmm, these are the head scratchers.

It's the 4th type - the non-urgent but important - that often go neglected. Luckily, those clever management consultants (ever inclined to think inside the box) have another matrix for us.

Effort vs Value prioritisation

You can use the above matrix to make a decision on your non-urgent but important tasks by asking how much effort they'll take to accomplish, and how much value they will deliver once accomplished. Pepper your heavy lift, strategic endeavours with a sprinkling of low-hanging-fruit style quick wins. And sometimes you'll find that a heavy lift is actually a poorly scoped series of quick-wins that would be much better tackled in chunks. Occasionally, you'll hit the grind of churning through low effort, low value tasks. That's life. However, avoid the high effort, low value stuff at almost any cost.

Okay, so that's the good news - there are tools available to help us get better at prioritising. We can run diagnostics on which plates to pay most attention to, and which we can afford to let drop.

Now for the bad news. I did warn you it was coming.

There's an anti-prioritisation trap in every veterinary clinic that doesn't allow us to put the above into practice. It shortcuts the urgent, important tasks and jumps the queue on the high value, low effort activities. Sound familiar?

It's the clinic telephone. The sworn enemy of any prioritisation practitioner. Think about it...

You've got to answer the phone in three rings, and you'll have to drop everything to achieve that. It's not just the veterinary receptionist trying to serve the customer in front of them that is at risk, but also the back-of-house team because some industrious soul installed another line that rings through to the back when the other lines are busy.

Taking blood from a fractious cat? The telephone doesn't care. It's 3.40pm and you haven't had your lunch yet (an important activity becoming increasingly urgent) - the telephone says tough! There's a certain tyranny to a ringing telephone.

This is exactly why so many veterinary clinics are turning to asynchronous text chat to engage with pet owners. Rather than the drop-everything, 3-rings response time expectation of a ringing telephone, veterinary teams find they have 30 to 60 minutes - maybe more - to respond to inbound text chats. And they can prioritise these chats at a glance - yes, using much the same approach as outlined above.

So, veterinary practice doesn't have to feel like spinning plates. We just need to get our priorities straight. The first step is to stop that ringing in our ears.

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