The Urgent vs. the Important

Steven StantonAt a recent client visit, I heard the following two phrases repeatedly:

  • “Everything here is Urgent”
  • “Other departments’ emergencies keep interrupting my work”

I suspect that both of these refrains are heard in many other organizations as well. The non-stop busy-ness and turbulence of the contemporary workplace is full of stop-and-starts and unplanned, but critical, new work tasks. No matter how detailed one’s To-Do list is, stuff happens and schedules are disrupted.

Our public courses deal with this issue in a variety of ways. In Process Redesign we discuss how to manage a process improvement project to minimize surprises. In Process Owners in Action, we link process accountability with process design to simplify work streams. In Leading Transformation we address some of the cultural underpinnings of this issue.

“Man plans and the Gods laugh” is an old but true cliché. When everything is urgent, nothing is more urgent than anything else. When everything is an emergency the word “emergency” loses it’s meaning.

The truth is that most organizations simply don’t have any clear language to describe strategic urgency. But, there are organizations that do have precisely that. Hospitals, for example, use the word STAT, an abbreviation of the Latin statim, which translates as “immediately”, to describe a medical action that’s urgently needed. The meaning is clear to everyone in the hospital community. There’s no confusion and STAT requirements move to the head of the line and pre-empt other work.

The opposite is true at a large Boston community service non-profit. Their support functions are constantly barraged by new and loud demands, interpreted as “Drop what you’re doing and do this new thing NOW!” As a result, sometimes as often as 3-4 times a day, a frazzled employee has to retrofit their work schedule to accommodate a new urgent demand that’s flung over the transom.

This ‘Everything Is Urgent’ syndrome is part of a larger pattern. The pattern can be described in one word, ‘More’. Too often in large organizations all work is additive. They add more projects, require extra tasks, define more strategic metrics, have even more meetings, and launch bigger and louder programs.

But nothing seems to ever come off the table.

• Projects don’t die, they simply become zombies or immortal

• Key performance indicators (KPIs) become SIPIs (somewhat interesting performance indicators)

• Meetings become routine, even if they provide no value

Too much is still too much.

Organizations need a language set to differentiate the truly urgent from the important. They need to have commonly understood words to describe routine daily work and new requirements. They need to understand that incessant interruptions create dysfunctional stress and make even short-term planning impossible.

When everything is urgent, the “urgency problem” needs to be fixed. STAT.

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