How can we differentiate urgent from false from false urgency?

No one can afford to slow down and sit back and watch what's happening in the market, what their competitors are doing, especially in a world where predictability is a luxury.
false urgency

The majority of leaders recognise that maintaining the status quo and wallowing in complacency can have disastrous consequences. The fast-changing environment is creating new problems week after week, and the operation is bleeding from more and more wounds. It is inevitable that management has to figure out which issues are important to address.

They have almost unlimited options to choose from: performance management, recruitment, reorganization, improving business metrics, efficiency, quality issues, timing, etc. It is logical to arrive to the conclusion that everything is interconnected, so we need to deal with all of them.

What is the employees’ experience?

We speedrun from meeting to meeting, manufacture endless PowerPoint presentations, produce agendas, summaries, long to-do lists, demonstrating that there are urgent things to do around here. We create the impression of urgency in others with our monumental performance as a result. But if everything is important, then nothing really is! There is no focus on what we want to change indeed. We create a lot of tension, stress, even anger and rage in people, and understandably their response will be “let one run who has two mothers”. They will increasingly look inwards, make excuses and do not act.

I often see situations like this, and it is unclear to me what is life and death and what is not. I found a very helpful checklist with a few aspects worth observing to distinguish real urgency from a false one. 

  • Are critical projects delegated to consultants, and a few are managed in-house? (We happen to have a project now where we as outsiders put more time and effort in it than the client. How important this project is supposed to be?)
  • Is it difficult for colleagues to organise meetings on important issues? It is worth observing how often we get the response “My calendar is full, I don’t have time”. If key people cannot save time, it is very likely that it is not important. 
  • Do colleagues confront each other on the topic or do they allow corporate politics, the status quo, to slow down initiatives?
  • Do you primarily focus on internal things on the meetings about a topic? Is the discussion about what should be done internally and less about what competitors are doing, what’s happening in the market, how technology is moving forward? If the conversations are too inward-focused, there may be no external pressure to respond to.
  • How many and how long PowerPoint presentations are produced? Do you put a lot of time and energy into preparing and presenting them? We might as well have done something instead. If the conclusion of a meeting is when to have the next one, most probably no decision has been made and it’s very likely that little progress were done.
  • To what extent do you use data or how much you speculate: “the right thing to do is…” or “my team is…” These can be useful discussions of course, but initiatives backed up by data, analysis and information are much more likely to be prioritised than those where we spread our opinions and stories.
  • It might be interesting to observe how much colleagues blame each other for major issues? Do we mainly look for who was responsible or is it more important to understand what has happened and how we can fix it and move forward?
  • How much passive-aggressive behaviour do we experience? “Oh, today is the deadline for this? They didn’t tell me!” Maybe it really was not clearly articulated or the importance was not stressed enough, maybe there were no checkpoints that would have send the signal that the task was really important… Either case, it’s probably not really important. 
  • Many times we say “we must act now”! And then we spend months on running tenders, neverending RFPs, several rounds of negotiations, excuses that some other priorities has come… If something really matters, why to suffer for several months in a procurement process, why don’t we go ahead if it is important and urgent? 
  • It is also worth paying attention to the amount of cynical comments circulating in the organisation about a topic that is considered important. It is very likely that sceptical, sarcastic comments are made because the issue is not so pressing and so people try to trivialise it to reduce its importance. 
  • It is worth paying attention to the extent to which the agreements, the deadlines, are met against the quality criteria we have set. If mediocre performance is acceptable and tolerable, then the issue may not be important!

It is not obvious to distinguish really important things from the rest. But, maybe next time, before accepting a meeting, you can review these points and decide more wisely whether you should attend. Is the meeting about a really important issue that needs to be addressed quickly?

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