Urgency is a disease, it is addictive.

Once you get hooked on urgent, it becomes a very difficult habit to kick, urgency has a power to it, it has an allure that is hard to escape.

Sending urgent emails, booking urgent meetings, these things make us feel empowered. When we announce that something is urgent, people mobilise, stuff gets done, decisions get made, projects get pulled from the fire and heroes are born.

Urgent plays to our ego, it gives us a rush of adrenalin, it puts us at the centre of the action, it makes things happen, it makes us important.

We see our colleagues use it, we see our leaders use it; we think to ourselves, “It works for them!”. We see them pulling projects out of the jaws of failure with urgent meetings and late night calls, we see them fight fires and emerge triumphant. Not only that, but we see praise heaped upon them for their sense of urgency, their drive, their determination to get things done.

But they’re not heroes, often the ones that are driving the urgency, the ones that need to pull their projects out of the fire, the ones dragging people on to last minute, late night calls, are the villains.

The Four Sources of Urgent

To understand why these heroes might not be all that they’re cracked up to be, we need to first look at the four sources of urgent:

  • Poor Planning – There is the adage; “Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail.”. Certainly, you can overcomplicate plans and make things hard, but generally speaking, people fail to plan in deep enough detail.

    Typically, what happens is that someone either won’t understand all the steps that are required, or they will group several complex steps into one plan item. Then something jumps out at them at the last minute, and boom, everyone is running around trying to urgently get whatever it is done so that they can stay on plan.

  • Poor Communication – Did you fully specify the parameters of the task? Did you check that they were thoroughly understood? Were the required outputs clear? The timeline? The methodology?

    No? Well, now the person tasked with that step of the plan has failed to deliver what is required, and now everyone has to work late to make up the shortfall.

  • Lack of Foresight – Something changes somewhere else in the project, it has a potential knock on effect on the work that you’re doing, but you’re too snowed under with “urgent” work to appreciate and understand the ramifications of this event.

    Now those ramifications have come home to roost, the knock on effects of the change mean that you can’t deliver your part of the project without significant additional work, and all of that work is, you guessed it, urgent.

  • Bad luck – Before you say, “Oh, cool, bad luck is on here, so I guess that’s me.”, the percentage of urgent that can be put down to genuine bad luck is vanishingly small. It’s there, it’s real, but if you were really honest with yourself it probably doesn’t explain your need for urgency.

    An example of bad luck is when I was leading a project, and a shipment of product destined for the Far East got delayed when someone parked a container ship the size of a skyscraper across the Suez Canal. Although even then we didn’t have to resort to urgent, we’d built enough contingency into the plan to cope with it.

Looking at the reasons above, if you use urgent with any regularity, then you’re either really unlucky (you’re not), or you’re falling into one of the other three possible reasons.

While I get that you can’t plan for every eventuality, managing in constant crisis is not managing at all. If everything you send is urgent, then you’re doing something wrong.

Still feel like a hero now?

How Do We Break the Urgent Addiction

So, how do we break our addiction to urgent? How can we shift to a more controlled way of working that allows us to get our job done without having to egotistically interrupt everyone else’s day and drag them into our drama?

  • De-fetishise it – Recognise urgent for what it is, a failure. Something got missed in planning, something didn’t get communicated, there was a failure to react to a change in circumstance; these are failures, and interrupting countless other peoples days’ to fix them doesn’t make you a hero.
  • Plan Well – Break down your tasks into actionable steps, actionable steps feature doing words. If your task doesn’t have a verb in it, then it’s not actionable. Don’t group actions together in a step, one step, one action, that way nothing can jump out at you.
  • Communicate Clearly – When you ask for something, be clear. What you want, when you need it by, how it fits in to the broader plan, are there any specific deliverables that need to be done in a certain way, and why. Use playback and paraphrasing to aid understanding, and be sure that the person you’re delegating to understands what you’re asking of them.
  • See and Escalate Issues – Don’t sit on issues, raise them and make them known. Once they’re raised, get them owned; get a name against them, make sure that person knows that their name in against an issue and recognise that handing it off doesn’t get you off the hook. You still have to make sure it gets to a resolution.

Work Doesn’t Have to be Hard

We congratulate people for moving from one crisis to the next; for their long hours and weekends worked, for pulling one project out of the fire after the next. Failing to appreciate that nothing had to be in the fire in the first place.

We need to change the expectation, we need to shift to a mindset that recognises the superiority of quiet competence over noisy, endless crisis management. People should be able to come to work, deliver the things that are on their list for that day, and go home (or dial out), and that’s it.

Control is better than chaos, it’s better for the leader, it’s better for the team, it’s better for the company, and it’s better for the individual.

But first we must all break the cycle of urgent, we must all push back against the tide. We must remind those who live in its thrall that to be in an endless state of urgent is not a success, and it’s not something that we will tolerate.

We must recognise urgent for the vice that it is, for the terrible addiction, and we must all work to break the cycle.

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