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Urgency will not fix your problem

Updated: Nov 25, 2023

Trying to create a sense of urgency almost always backfires.

I lead hospitality teams. A vast majority of my life is people, be they team members, customers, or stakeholders wishing we could go faster. Over my career, I have often been asked whether I thought my team had a strong enough sense of urgency. Sometimes I would be questioned more directly, as to whether I could make my team work with a stronger sense of urgency. More often than not though, the request faced is more subtle than that, creeping in the backdoor of my psyche — “Martin, I would really like to get this done quickly" followed by "Can you come back to me with a timescale?”. Then even though I know that it is the wrong thing, sometimes I have found myself saying "There's a hint of urgency about this" in order to provoke a response from my team. It nearly always fell on deaf ears, and I would see certain profile types shutting down as they process the instruction. That is because the message being conveyed was one of stress and time.

If you’re not responsible for something every day (and frankly, sometimes even if you are), it’s easy to believe progress should be faster. After all, we all want fast. There’s always more to do than we could ever accomplish, and simply moving faster would get us there quicker - wouldn't it? If the team just got their arses moving a little more, we wouldn’t have to make tough choices - would we?

The answers are no, you wouldn't necessarily get there quicker, and no because the tough choices are simply different questions... The outcome is the constant in this. As anyone who has ever snapped a shoelace in their efforts to get out of the house on time knows, haste for hastes sake often backfires. That is because pace without logic always values action over results and that, has consequences. Those consequences usually end in repeated effort, more time wasted, and less quality. We have all seen the metrics of urgency Vs importance. When the issue at hand becomes both, you land in crisis management using phrases like JFDI.

Shortcuts make sloppiness.

In theory, teams led by professional managers would always turn out professional work — refusing to take shortcuts that would compromise their output. In reality, we all carry a desire to please and our jobs depend on a willingness to follow the direction of the company. Actually, not even the company, sometimes just an over-eager boss determined to be first across the line. Even a top-notch team isn’t immune from the pressure, and little things start to pile up — small service issues we don’t have time to fix, less than thorough concentration on processes, and failure to monitor key performance indicators.

running faster and jumping higher is altogether the wrong solution

Limited head space for creative solutions.

The constant pressure to hurry reduces our ability to be proactive. We don’t take the extra twenty minutes to understand the best direction and cut out several days of work. We fail to realise that running faster and jumping higher is altogether the wrong solution and we need to stop investing time in it. Stepping back and reflecting takes time, so it’s often discouraged in pro-urgency environments, but it’s in these reflecting minutes or hours, that weeks and months are saved.

When they believe you are more focused on the input volume than the output quality, their faith in leadership becomes tested


Trying to create a sense of urgency takes time and effort. Monitoring input and asking if people coming early. Are they staying late? Is enough being produced? That’s a lot of work for a leadership team to track. Thinking time that could be focused on bigger, deeper issues. Furthermore, it undermines trust in the team. When they believe you are more focused on the input volume than the output quality, their faith in leadership becomes tested. Be careful dismissing this point too quickly — even if you would never actually micromanage, you could be creating the wrong impression for managers in your team.

Loses potency quicker than gaining traction.

Artificial urgency for milestones loses its potency quickly — over the course of a job, and over the course of a career. For experienced CEOs MDs and Ops Directors (the people you most need wisdom from), it comes off as amateur and doesn’t inspire long-term loyalty. In fact quite the contrary, it inspires short-term loyalty and long-term apathy. Ever heard the phrase "you can sell anything once"? That phrase absolutely applies here. You can force through your urgency agenda once, but if the reward to your team is more run faster and jump higher tasks - you will undoubtedly lose them.

why are we doing this, what is the output strategy and who is going to benefit?

Takes over the communication stream. When urgency is the goal, communicating urgency is the highest priority message, and more important messages like why are we doing this, what is the output strategy, and who is going to benefit — those very messages that actually get great results — are drowned out.

A sense of purpose

So let’s retire a sense of urgency and instead look for a sense of purpose. A sense of purpose is a deep understanding of the reasons behind our efforts and a desire to pour in time and energy because that purpose resonates with the impact we’d like to make on the world.

A sense of purpose is immersion in our cause, and allowing that exposure to motivate action. A sense of purpose is about going faster and smarter toward a mission we all see clearly. It’s about using good reasoned judgment because we all understand the short and long-term implications of our actions on what we’re creating together.

A strong sense of purpose manifests when a junior manager watches a potential customer struggle with the flow and stays late to make the changes that make it easier to shop. It shows itself when your team spends their weekend on a few small changes because they feel engaged with the problem at hand and want to produce a better solution.

A team with a high sense of purpose can look a lot like a team with a high sense of urgency

Crafting a sense of purpose is very different than creating urgency - even though the eventual destination may be the same.

A team with a high sense of purpose can look a lot like a team with a high sense of urgency. Output is high. People are engaged. The critical distinction is that what you do as a leader has very little overlap.

Creating a sense of urgency is about deadlines, nagging, and sheer speed. Fostering a sense of purpose is different. It’s a collaborative endeavor, and it requires trust that your team members will translate their sense of purpose into increased effectiveness.

Your primary job as a leader is to hire the right team, and then to spend time inspiring this sense of purpose. Help people understand the impact of their work, and speed will follow.

So in conclusion, it's fair to say that there's a time and a place for everything, every style, and every personality. What there isn't though, is the luxury to waste time. There are those that conflate reflection and a sense of purpose, and end up with wasted time - lots of wasted time.

Managing (and eventually letting go of) employees who can’t keep up a reasonable pace is a competency every company needs to develop. Most reasonable businesses, in any sector, need predictability and have good reasons to create well-considered deadlines. Every company wants to go fast toward fixing problems a creating timely strategies.

The key is to avoid letting that sense of urgency become the goal in itself.


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