“Urgency is poisonous”

Here’s one for a rainy Monday morning. 37signals’ experimental 4-day working week is going very well.

When I first compared this enlightened approach to people-management with the drive-them-harder style of Jason Calacanis, it triggered a massive debate, and I wrote a follow-up comparing the Calacanis approach to an evil cult. Last week 37signals reckoned that urgency is poisonous.

One thing I’ve come to realize is that urgency is overrated. In fact, I’ve come to believe urgency is poisonous. Urgency may get things done a few days sooner, but what does it cost in morale? Few things burn morale like urgency. Urgency is acidic.

Emergency is the only urgency. Almost anything else can wait a few days. It’s OK. There are exceptions (a trade show, a conference), but those are rare.

When a few days extra turns into a few weeks extra then there’s a problem, but what really has to be done by Friday that can’t wait for Monday or Tuesday? If your deliveries are that critical to the hour or day, maybe you’re setting up false priorities and dangerous expectations.

If you’re a just-in-time provider of industry parts then precise deadlines and deliveries may be required, but in the software industry urgency is self-imposed and morale-busting. If stress is a weed, urgency is the seed. Don’t plant it if you can help it.

I can’t agree more. A client phoned once, all a’fluster about an “emergency”. Before I could think, I blurted out the question, “Why? Whose life is in peril?”

Of course no-one was in danger. This client was operating in crisis mode, as usual: that anti-pattern also known as “firefighting mode”: “Dealing with things only when they become a crisis, with the result that everything becomes a crisis.” I’ve written about that before here and with my colleague Zern Liew.

7 Replies to ““Urgency is poisonous””

  1. That was an incredibly apposite post after my day today. I’ve been dealing with other people’s self-inflicted urgency for the past few weeks and it’s a really unpleasant and ineffective place to work. It occurred to me recently that the five day working week is an anachronism — a hangover from the days when it was assumed that for every worker there was a full-time homemaker, something much less true now than it was Back Then (although never entirely true). These days, particularly for those who are both sole breadwinner and sole homemaker, it’s a pretty unworkable model.

    I generally promote the theory of asking if anyone will die if you take a lunch break. On one occasion however, the person I was talking to turned out to be a nurse on a cardiac ward…

  2. @Quatrefoil: There are, of course, some situations when the urgency is real. If we keep the urgency for those occasions we can really focus and get it done. As I try to move to the Getting Things Done® methodology, I realise that it helps focus on what is truly urgent.

    Of course another problem is over-commitment and business’ habit of always demanding “more with less” — even when resources have been trimmed back to the bare minimum. Yes, you can run without spare staff on the shop floor or spare trucks in the depot — until something goes wrong, and you don’t have the spare capacity.

  3. I have also just started with the Getting Things Done approach, which has itself been an interesting exercise, not least because it highlights where I, working in a service capacity, do not have control of my workflow. The urgency of the last little while was real — hard external deadlines with significant negative consequences if they weren’t met — and resources themselves were not a problem — though tight, the work should have been manageable if the timeframe had been reasonable. The problem, and I’m sure it’s a common one, is that the client leaves it to the last minute to do their bit, and the service person still has the hard deadline, and will cop the flack if it’s not met. Ultimately, that’s a situation about power.

  4. Perhaps as a society, we have become addicted to busy-ness? The attractions of self-induced, or otherwise unnecessary or avoidable urgentness could be:

    • It is better to be busy doing something, rather than sitting still and thinking about something. Or just sitting still.
    • Doing is tangible. Tangible outcomes means “we are doing something about some issue”.
    • It is easier to react to each new thing on its own terms as it arises. It is harder to try and see the big picture or look ahead.
    • Being in the midst of an emergency makes us feel important. It feeds our need to be needed.
    • Calm and purposeful work is less exciting than fire fighting.
    • A business/business person that is busy must be profitable or somehow “good”.
  5. Busy can be dangerous too. If your workspace is always filled with busy Beta brain waves, there’s little room for creative Alpha waves. Coffee is a creativity killer.

  6. @Quatrefoil: Good luck with GTD! I followed the 2-day process to get everything initiated as outlined in David Allen’s book. It worked superbly for reducing stress and, yes, highlighting where the bottlenecks were. I’ve now fallen off the process somewhat, and I’m trying to find another 2-day slot to get back on the horse.

    If clients are making it hard to achieve deadlines, that can be fixed (or at least alleviated) in the initial contract or service level agreement. For major projects, I have a set of “agreed work methods” which clients and I discuss and sign. They include a recognition that the success of the project is a partnership, that a delay by them will mean we can’t achieve later timelines, and that we agree to tell each other immediately when something might affect the timelines.

    I also stress the difference between “milestones” and “deadlines”.

    @Zern: All excellent points. I’m reminded that in the most critical of environments — like air traffic control rooms, military operations rooms and so on — people aren’t running around waving their hands. They’re sitting at their workstations, quietly focussed on what they’re doing. They have been trained properly for the situation, they know what they’re expected to do, and they have the tools and authority to do their job.

    @Cait: “Coffee is a creativity killer” is the best thing I’ve seen all day. As I sip a coffee. I’ve given up before for over a year. It’s time to give up again.

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