What prevails: urgency and chaos or focus on what matters? How well can you filter the urgent out from the important in your life and work right now?
What does this word invoke for you? Is your life one of hectic urgency, you know, more like the “Type-A” or is it one of more collective calm? How often do you allow the urgent to take control of your life or a situation? How often is the urgent also important? Are you one of the few that has learned to balance these, giving the important most of your attention? Or does the drama queen in you need urgency to raise your significance?
I have seen urgency defined as: the state of demanding notice or attention; the presence of an earnest, insistent and essential need; a pressured requirement. To put it into a very lifelike perspective: surely everyone has experienced the desperate, urgent need of a toilet to avert certain disaster? Urgency – if I don’t do this now, there will be extremely serious consequences….
Last month we spoke about complacency. Isn’t urgency in a way an antonym for complacency? That if we assign an urgency to something, that it will serve to avoid or overcome complacency?
But because something is urgent, does that mean it also has to be important? I have learned that many people (particularly those with a heightened propensity for drama) can struggle with the difference between the two, and sometimes need help to find perspective. Urgency.
I have also experienced people that are bored or lacking purpose or those insufficiently challenged to embark on creating the urgent so as to invoke some action or something more interesting.
And then of course we have the really urgent, like the impending approach of a hurricane or bushfire, which if we didn’t respond with the required urgency could result in loss of life, etc.
So what’s the rub here?
First things first – urgent versus important
In his book “First Things First”, Stephen Covey talks about the urgent versus important in quadrants, whereby the bottom left is not important, the top left is important, as well as urgent and the top right is not urgent.
This makes the top left quadrant (important and urgent) where we experience crisis, deadlines etc. An emergency hospital admission would be unthinkable without urgency.
It makes the top right (important but not urgent) where we find preparation, values, relationships, recreation – the true stuff that matters longer term. Here is where we’d find elective surgery, for instance.
It makes the bottom left (urgent but not important) the interruptive and stuff we call “noise” that really just gets in the way.
It makes the bottom right (neither urgent nor important) the trivial time wasters and “escape” activities. What I often refer to as “furfies”.
I am reminded of Sun Tzu in his book “The Art of War”, in which his primary message is that the art of war is to actually avoid it in the first place. He says: “plan for the difficult while it is easy; do what is great while it is still small”. I wonder if we couldn’t transpose this sage advice on the urgent versus important conundrum?
In my corporate career I was known to be quite cynical about the urgent, as things could quite frequently be allowed to become urgent because of a lack of planning. I remember as a manager in an organization working to the “four eyes principle” (that is that every document leaving the company needing to have two signatures on it to be sure that context, quality and ethics are verified by more than one person signing it off), I was sometimes confronted with very urgent signatures and became very unpopular if I refused to make “their” lack of preparation or planning or both “my” problem.
Those of you that have been reading my blogs over the last (almost) 4 years will know that I am very focused on helping my clients becoming aware of and dealing with “what really matters” and not to “sweat on the small stuff”. To me, important will win over urgent almost every time.
Time versus energy management
I learned recently in a course how to focus on energy management rather than time management alone. It highlighted for me that in the marathon of life the times where we need to sprint. But if life has developed into an ongoing sprint rather than the ongoing pace of a marathon, then everything will have to appear urgent and we will risk burnout. That is of course just not sustainable.
So if I get you to have a think about the leaders that you work for, how well are they in control of the important and what really matters in terms of “the big picture”, do you think? How often are the things that are important forgotten or pale into insignificance because of the emergence of the urgent? Is this something that happens rarely, often or all the time?
And again, if you are one of those leaders, how might your staff respond to this question if I asked them?
You see, to me leadership is about first setting the vision (which I liken to the church steeple in a village – because it is visible to everyone in that village) in terms of the organization’s big picture direction, and then mobilizing and inspiring the right resources best equipped and motivated to deliver the outcomes leading to its fulfillment. This is not only important, but the way I see it this also requires a sense of urgency so that there is an inherent tension (or spark or motivation or inspiration) to keep everyone enthusiastically focused on doing what needs to be done and wants to be achieved. Complacency would prevent the degree of success possible only when accompanied by the right level of urgency, right?
Of course there will be times where we slip up and things don’t go to plan, necessitating abnormal levels of urgent remedial behaviour and activities in order to put us back on track. That’s not only human, but it’s also quite “normal”, that is to be predicted and expected. However, if it becomes normal to always be behind the 8 ball and that long hours and extended periods of stress become the expected norm, then we actually have a leadership problem or an organizational effectiveness problem that can never be “fixed” with ongoing urgency. This requires a “hang on a minute” approach (as I wrote in Using “the Gap” to reframe yourself that allows us to step back and consider Taking Stock of where we are so as to be able to put things right and back on track for a “normal” ongoing process that will assure the required outcomes.
I don’t want you to think I am critical of urgency. Of course it has its place where if applied correctly is a necessity.
In any new business initiative for example a transformation program or breaking into a new market etc, management will need to keep assuring sufficient urgent focus on its continuity for delivery. That is to keep the troops inspired towards it, motivated to keep driving the required outcomes so that everybody wins.
What I have experienced however is that in the competitive nature of business today, everything seems to have become urgent and people are confused amongst all the urgency.
This is where the CEO needs to be sure that their exec team has a clear and prioritized understanding of everything that is going on within the organization at all times. I’ve spoken many times of the fatigue that sets in from management throwing additional “business improvement projects” at cross functional teams all the time without considering the impact on the organization’s and its people’s capacity to do justice to them all, let alone still doing justice to their “original jobs”, as I wrote in Managing Agenda’s and Appetite and Capacity.
The risk of individual execs wanting to look better than their peers can result in such situations arising, which if left unchecked cause confusion, conflict and fatigue, quite apart from their effect on the overall results.
Good leadership will provide and maintain clarity on the handful of key initiatives requiring ongoing urgent attention while enabling the continuity of the all-important “business as usual”.
So if you were now to reflect on your role and the organization(s) you perform it in, how well is urgency managed in that organization? Is there the right balance between the urgent, the important and the capacity required to keep it so?
Or is it out of balance and subject to all the intrigues and politics and confusion so apparent when the egos and “drama queens” or “significance seekers” are allowed their way?
Whether you are a leader or led, you can see it all around you all the time, can’t you?
What will you do today, this week, this month to help your team or your department or your organization to become aware of the differences and do something about it?
What if you could?