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 Urgency||Too Little Urgency|
|Too much pressure results in Fatigue, Exhaustion or Burnout||Too little challenge results in Boredom / Complacency|
|It can be difficult to steady people and to sustain progress||It can be difficult to get people moving / take action|
|There is Tension or Conflict||Cozy Consensus or Risk-averse Culture|
|Excessive Firefighting resulting in Inefficiency & Waste||Lost opportunities / Failure to deal with threats|
|People rush headlong into action, without sufficient planning/preparation||Danger 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.
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.
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.
Project Teams ruled by excessive urgency demonstrate the following patterns of behavior. Are any of them evident within your organization/team?
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?
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.