Urgency, and the resultant reactivity created by it are necessary evils in modern business. In fact, it is a part of the territory when you are working in global, complex, and ever-changing marketplaces. As leaders, you need to foster a sense urgency to create traction and momentum. But what if much of your day to day urgency was unproductive? What if it was just leading to a drop in quality, increased rework, and stressed workers? What if it was burning your people out?
As a productivity speaker, trainer and consultant I have spent over twenty years working in radically different businesses across the financial services, manufacturing, professional services and technology sectors. I am hard pressed to think of a business that I have worked with that was not overly driven by urgency. Urgency is a cultural issue, and I believe it is having a negative impact on the productivity and wellbeing of everyone within those businesses. The good news is, it can be moderated, and the culture can be shifted with a little work.
Acute and chronic urgency
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want to make urgency out to be the bad guy. Some urgency is unavoidable and does create traction and momentum. While I believe that most of our time should be spent working proactively, some of our time will of course be spent in a more reactive zone, dealing with urgency. This is perfectly normal and healthy in any workplace. Short periods spent dealing with urgent issues is what I call ‘acute’ urgency, and if we must deal with this type of work every now and again, it won’t kill us.
The real problem lies in the fact that many teams end up working in this reactive zone for long periods, where everything is urgent. This is ‘acute and chronic’ urgency, and is what will cause the burnout. I understand that some people tell themselves the story that they thrive on urgency and deadlines, but at the end of the day, the intense pressure gets to many workers, and they burn our or leave. They may not cite urgency as the reason, as they are often unaware of the issue, but it happens all too often.
What can we do?
So, what can we do about this issue? How can we change the culture of our team and develop a more proactive approach to our work? I believe the first step is to avoid becoming victims of an urgent culture. We have agency here, no matter our roles. There is plenty we can do in the face of urgency. We need to realise that urgency does not happen by chance. It is often self-inflicted, or caused by others not planning or managing their work proactively.
At the personal level, we can adopt a more proactive workstyle, and build time for planning into our busy schedules. We need to slow down to speed up sometimes. Consider attending less meetings and protecting time during core working hours to get stuff done. You are less likely to leave things until the last minute if you manage your priorities proactively.
At the cultural level, I believe the key is to agree on a simple set of team agreements to reduce unproductive urgency within your team. Avoiding language like ASAP and resisting saying things are urgent when they are not would be a good start. Clearly communicating deadlines and opening the space for deadline negotiation within the team will also help. But as a senior leader, maybe the most impactful thing you could do is to raise unproductive urgency as a topic for discussion. Discuss what is happening in your team, and work out if urgency is a problem. Call it out every time you see cases of avoidable urgency, and coach your team to manage their work more proactively. Remember, you want to create a sense of urgency, not senseless urgency!
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