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Urgency: Has Your Project/Initiative Got Too Much or Too Little?

Some projects and initiatives are ruled by a stopwatch, others are run by an hourglass.  Getting the balance right between the two is key to achieving and sustaining high levels of performance. Yet our benchmarking data suggests that there is either too much, or too little; urgency in as many as two out of 3 of project teams.

Got the Right Balance?

 

Does your team have too little, or too much urgency? Considering varying perspectives from across your team and its stakeholders, put your projects or initiative on the continuum below:

Next let’s sense check your project’s position on the scale above. The table below presents a profile of organizations/teams at each end of the stopwatch-hourglass continuum. How many of the behaviors shown do you recognize? 

Too Much UrgencyToo Little Urgency
Too much pressure results in Fatigue, Exhaustion or BurnoutToo little challenge results in Boredom / Complacency  
It can be difficult to steady people and to sustain progressIt can be difficult to get people moving / take action  
There is Tension or ConflictCozy Consensus or Risk-averse Culture  
Excessive Firefighting resulting in Inefficiency & WasteLost opportunities / Failure to deal with threats  
People rush headlong into action, without sufficient planning/preparationDanger of analysis paralysis, decision procrastination & letargic execution.

What is the single biggest error people make when they try to change? After reflection, I decided the answer was that they did not create a high enough sense of urgency.
J.P. Kotter1

Getting the right balance between too much and too little urgency can be a challenge. Count the number of statements in each column that could be applied to your project or initiative, then revisit your team’s position on the continuum above. Remember to ask others for their perspectives.

Real Vs Frenetic Urgency?

It is important to draw a distinction between real (or fruitful) urgency and frenetic (or headless) urgency2.  The former is productive and worthwhile, the latter is a pattern of behavior that results in waste and inefficiency and is described by terms, such as; ‘firefighting’, ‘chasing your tail’, or ‘headless chicken’. 

Urgency must be filtered through the lens of importance3. In any high-pressure environment, such as the pitlane, management teams must focus on what matters most.  Just because something must be done today, or this week, does not mean that it is important.  The urgency is real only if the subject is important, or strategic.  The rest is firefighting. 

Executives often complain about the amount of time spend on low value work. At your next project meeting ask people what % of their time they are spending in quadrant 3 and 4. You may be surprised at the answer.

In the race to take action, what matters most should not be at the mercy of what matters least (even if it is urgent)4.  Managers who don’t separate real urgency from the busyness of day-to-day activity risk being blindsided by looming strategic business opportunities and challenges.

Are there Signs of Excessive Urgency?

Project Teams ruled by excessive urgency demonstrate the following patterns of behavior.  Are any of them evident within your organization/team?

  • Unrelenting pressure from short term targets.  Targets may be unrealistic, over-ambitious or under resourced.
  • Pursuing too many ideas / initiatives / projects, a lack of prioritization, failure to make trade-offs, or an inability to say ‘no’.
  • People are living ‘on the edge’ racing from task to task and spend a lot of time firefighting.  The atmosphere is one of mild panic and crises are a regular occurrence.
  • People are busy, but the focus is on activity, not effectiveness and people may be working hard, rather than smart.
  • Some people have become adrenaline junkies fuelled by caffeine or sugary drinks. They are at risk of burn-out.
  • Being seen to be busy, incl. working late or emails on the weekend is important. People don’t take all their holiday entitlement.
  • There isn’t enough time to think (e.g. planning or reviewing) with some decisions being rushed.  The approach may be scatter gun.
  • Failure to invest in the longer term with people being busy looking after the day to day. 
  • People are in reactive mode, with too much emotion, causing people to make impulsive and ill-considered decisions.  Tension and conflict are never far from the surface.
  • Sustaining momentum or staying the course is a challenge.  Enthusiasm fizzles-out or is diverted by the next crisis / opportunity.

As the above list suggests excessive and prolonged urgency can degrade performance over time. How many of the above risk factors are present within your project?

Thinking Under Pressure?

Urgency is great for action, but not necessarily for thinking.  Fast thinking (also called ‘System 1’) is instinctive and emotional.  In stressful and demanding situations, it can detract from slower, more deliberative, and more logical (‘System 2’) thinkiing5.  But we don’t need scientists or psychologists to tell us that we don’t do our best thinking when in crisis mode. Urgent actions are often not the most through-through.

Managers must balance the need for faster action with the need for slower (more careful) decisions. Consider also that prolonged urgency can lead to cognitive impairment, including Cognitive Tunnelling6 and Threat Rigidity7.

Excessive and persistent levels of fear create changes in brain function that then interfere with decision-making processes.
Paul Brown, Joan Kingsley & Sue Paterson8

Got a Bias for Action?

Chances are that the person leading your project is a Type A manager. They are driven by urgency and tend by nature to me more competitive, stressed and time scarce9.

In our conversations with busy and stressed (Type A) project leaders and sponsors we use action verbs, talking in the language of ‘assess’, ‘agree’ and ‘execute’.  Under the pressure of deadlines and targets, they don’t have much bandwidth or patience for anything else – especially not a six-step change process.  But in dealing with their more tempered and realistic Type B colleagues we talk of the requirements not just of action, but of initiating, embedding and sustaining change. 

Today, we know more about change than ever before.  For example, we know that things will naturally stay the way they are (i.e. status quo) unless underlying attitudes and behaviors change. This basic knowledge is key to understanding why so many new projects, initiatives and strategies fail.  But it also inspires an approach that can maximize the likelihood of success.

Need to Slow Down to Speed Up?

When there are problems around implementation, adoption or compliance some steps (see pitlane change model below) are skipped. The key message is that there are times when ‘to speed up, you need to slow down’.

Many managers complain about too much time spent in meetings and workshops. That means the idea of fast pitstops appeals to them.   But speed isn’t everything. To use the race pitstop metaphor, if the driver hits the accelerator before all the wheels have been fastened the results can be disastrous.  If the nuts haven’t been fully tightened on all the wheels, things will get worse before they get better – that is the equivalent of managers making decisions or setting strategy without sufficient analysis, buy-in or consultation. 

Q: Where (in your organization or team) can you see delays, indecision, procrastination, or inactivity?  Use the model below to see if some essential steps have been skipped.

5 step change model

Got a Burning Platform?

A compelling purpose / goal is key to generating and sustaining urgency around any key project, priority or strategy.  The concept of a burning platform is a term used to communicate the idea of a strategic imperative or the need for urgent action.10

In early 2011, Nokia’s newly appointed CEO wrote a now famous letter to staff.  The message was a stark one: the company was ‘standing on a burning platform’.  Using the analogy of a worker on a burning oil platform in the North Sea he said ‘… we have multiple points of scorching heat that are fuelling a blazing fire around us’ W.  It was a dramatic call to action for the company blindsided by Apple and Android.  There was no option but to jump – to take action. The question is: What is your burning platform?

How Will You Ignite Urgency?

A crisis can really get people’s attention and rally them into action. But, which is more powerful – a burning platform or a burning passion?

Well, our research suggests that the flame generated by a burning passion tends to burn brighter for longer11.

When pressure, rather than passion drives performance, there can be challenges in sustaining performance over time. Moreover, people may not perform at their best when there is a ‘gun to their head’ (metaphorically speaking) or the sense of danger is too great. 

What are the Implications for Your Project?

Having considered the level of urgency, take a moment to note your conclusions and their implications for your project or initiative.

Pause for a moment to reflect on the type of urgency that most drives your project today and what it might be tomorrow.

  1. J. P. Kotter, ‘A Sense of Urgency,’ Harvard Business Press, 2008. []
  2. John Kotter discusses the topic of false or frenetic urgency in detail in his book ‘A Sense of Urgency,’ Harvard Business Press, 2008 []
  3. The four quadrants mapping urgency against importance is a powerful tool to be found in Stephen R. Covey, ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, Free Press, 1990 []
  4. To paraphrase the famous Johann Wolfgang von Goethe quote: “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.”  Link: http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/2326-things-which-matter-most-must-never-be-at-the-mercy []
  5. Daniel Kahneman, ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, Penguin, 2011 []
  6. ‘Cognitive Tunnelling is the misdirection of focus during a crisis’, according to Charles Duhigg, ‘Smarter Faster Better’, Random House Books, 2017. []
  7. Threat rigidity is defined as ‘the contraction of authority, reduced experimentation, and focus on existing resources’ by Donald Sull, ‘Upside of Turbulence’, HarperBusiness, 2009 []
  8. Paul Brown, Joan Kingsley & Sue Paterson, ‘The Fear-free Organization: Vital Insights from Neuroscience to Transform Your Business Culture’, Kogan Page, 2015. []
  9. Managers with Type A personalities tend to be more competitive, stressed and time scarce – behaviors that leave them prone to coronary problems.  This Type A behavior (TAB) afflicts over three quarters of all urban American males.   See Meyer Friedman, ‘Type a Behavior: Its Diagnosis and Treatment, Springer Science & Business Media, 31 Oct 1996. []
  10. The concept of a burning platform is linked to Daryl Conner – for the history see: THE REAL STORY OF THE BURNING PLATFORM, by Daryl Conner , Aug 15, 2012.  Link: http://www.connerpartners.com/frameworks-and-processes/the-real-story-of-the-burning-platform []
  11. See this idea expanded upon by Dr. Peter Fuda in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tfn6vD4yyC4 []

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