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The Problem With an Always Urgent Workplace Culture

Move fast in the right direction –not in every direction.

By Gustavo Razzetti

April 19, 2022

When everything is urgent, nothing really is

Having a sense of urgency is critical for organizational success. Speed is a competitive advantage. Teams who make fast decisions, experiment often, and move to market swiftly tend to be more successful. However, there’s a big difference between having a sense of urgency and a workplace culture in which everything is always urgent.

Are you constantly running from one meeting to another? Or letting your inbox, Slack alerts, or calendar dictate how you work? When everything is urgent, we end up focusing on doing small, day-to-day tasks rather than on achieving more significant, impactful things.

Constant urgency – the desperate pressure to be doing more, faster – harms productivity and motivation. However, not all urgency is bad. The problem is unnecessary urgencies that distract our energy and attention from the work that really matters.

Moving From a Reactive to a Proactive Culture

Dealing with conflicting priorities is not something new. Already in 2011, most executives (64%) complained that they had too many conflicting priorities.

Rushing and running in many directions doesn’t mean your team is making progress. There’s a difference between speed and hysteria or anxiety. Operating under constant pressure – constantly reacting to external events – turns urgency into a toxic force. We end up spending our days (and nights) dealing with self-inflicted fires.

Moving fast is not an indicator of team success – focusing on (and achieving) the right things fast should be the goal.

Urgent is lazy. It’s easier to label everything as urgent than to take the time to prioritize. Urgent removes accountability from managers who pass all the pressure to the team. People have to work on more "initiatives” just because their bosses doesn’t want to make tough decisions or push back on their respective managers.

Urgent is power because managers often define priorities without involving team members. They confuse what’s important to them with what’s vital for achieving team goals.

Urgent is stressful because managers equate a state of constant alert with high performance. They make people jump from one fire to another instead of doing meaningful work. Thus, they create a culture of grind, burnout, and resentment.

An always-urgent culture focuses on busyness, not outcome. It rewards people who are constantly busy doing something instead of encouraging them to pause, reflect, and think.

As Basecamp CEO Jason Fried wrote in It doesn’t have to be crazy at work, “It’s no wonder people are working longer, earlier, later, on weekends, and whenever they have a spare moment. People can’t get work done at work anymore.”

Not all urgency is bad, however – the problem is when everything feels urgent.

There are always going to be moving pieces. Life is messy. No matter how much you plan, things usually get more complicated. And then there’s people: someone’s priorities, delays, emotions, or agendas always get in the way.

Urgency, when used in moderation, creates traction. It helps break inertia and moves team members into action. However, when urgent is the normal, teams lose focus. They chase shiny objects rather than tackle strategic projects.

As Dermot Crowley wrote on Urgent!, “Urgency is also a useful tool, and without it, we would struggle to gain traction with important initiatives, deliver client work on time, or meet business obligations. Most senior managers use urgency as a lever to drive work forward.” The challenge is that they associate a calm environment with a lack of productivity.

The solution to this dilemma, as Crowley explains, is not to take an opposite extreme position and try to slow everything. The answer lies in dialing down the urgency to a more sustainable level – where the urgency is neither acute (very strong) nor chronic (very long).

The author believes that we cannot eradicate urgency, but we can minimize unproductive urgency and avoid those last-minute things that waste our time. We will never control unexpected events. However, we can control how we react and avoid letting them dictate what is or isn't important.

Avoid falling into the urgency trap – take steps to move from a reactive to a more productive workplace culture.

As Crowley explains, “The urgency trap is where we end up working with too much or not enough urgency.” The reactive zone is where urgency is acute and constant. On the other hand, the inactive zone is where there’s an absence of urgency. The Active Zone is the sweet spot: urgency increases productivity instead of harming it.

In reactive cultures, everything is urgent and important. Conversely, a proactive culture is one in which the organization undertakes to anticipate and act before problems arise. By focusing on the right priorities, they prevent every issue from becoming a fire.

How to Prioritize Your Team’s Work

Redefine urgent

When everything is urgent, nothing really is. When leaders label everything urgent, they add unnecessary stress and anxiety, distracting teams from doing meaningful work.

Start by redefining the notion of urgency with your colleagues. Here are some of the questions I facilitate to help teams reflect upon and define what urgency really means to them.

Does urgent mean immediate or important? How should the team distinguish between an urgent crisis and an important request? Who defines what's urgent: the manager or the team? Where do we need more urgency and when do we need less?

Having a shared notion of what urgent really means will save your team many headaches. Define principles that are easy to observe. That something feels urgent to one member doesn't mean it should become urgent for the team.

Prioritize important work, not just urgent

Use the prioritization matrix (aka the Eisenhower Matrix) popularized by Steve Covey to map your team’s workload and define a course of action. This framework will help you neutralize an “always-urgent” culture, eliminate time-wasters, and make more space for deep work.

Once you’ve captured all of your work in the respective quadrants, use this as your guide:

Urgent & Important: These are your highest priorities. They demand that you act quickly.

Not Urgent & Important: These tasks have a much greater impact on helping you achieve your long-term goals. According to Covey, this is the sweet spot – you’re proactive, decreasing the number of pressing problems and making time for meaningful work.

Urgent & Not Important: These are everyday distractions – daily fires that suck your team’s focus, energy, and time. Delegate to others or deprioritize – especially when someone else has imposed the urgency.

Not Urgent & Not Important: These tasks shouldn’t be on your team’s to-do list right now. Get rid of them!

This activity is a wake-up call for managers. It provides a clear picture of the actual workload, promoting a conversation about what’s rewarded: Being busy and running from one fire drill to another, or doing impactful work that matters?

Focusing on what’s important minimizes emergencies, allowing them to be treated with the proper importance before they become a fire.

Tip: If most of your projects fall in one quadrant (e.g., High Urgency/ High Priority), you need to ‘redraw’ the matrix to ensure the most even distribution). Learn more about the prioritization matrix here.

Who Are You Serving?

One of the reasons behind conflicting priorities is that teams are unclear about who they really serve. They try to satisfy too many stakeholders and end up pleasing no one.

Prioritize whom you serve. When facilitating the team purpose exercise, one of the questions I ask people is: Who are you really serving? Most teams provide services to multiple constituents: the whole company, a specific department, one leader, the clients, the community, etc. However, defining the key stakeholder makes it easier to determine what’s urgent or not – every team should have one primary group they serve, not multiple.

This activity will also help you deal with managers who think everything is important and urgent. The key stakeholder’s needs, not powerplays, should determine your team’s priorities.

Integrate priorities across teams

According to Harvard Business Review, almost 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional. They often have conflicting agendas or legacy processes that hinder performance. Most importantly, individual or department-specific goals are rewarded over collective ones.

Start with the end in mind: What matters the most to the organization?

Define criteria to establish cross-functional priorities. Establishing clear trade-offs will help you resolve conflicting priorities. Use even over statements to effectively prioritize one good thing even over another good thing.

For example, shall your team prioritize urgent work even over important work– or the other way around? Should it prioritize cross-departmental goals even over department-specific goals?

This doesn't mean that one thing doesn’t matter but rather that one matters most. When push comes to shove, your team will know what to prioritize even over what else. Establishing criteria for prioritizing work will save your team many headaches, mainly when conflict arises.

Prioritization is a zero-sum game

Time is a finite resource. No matter how hard you try to squeeze it, there’s never enough to do everything. We don’t get more time; we make time. That’s why prioritization is critical to focus energy and resources on the initiatives that matter.

Unfortunately, leaders often forget to realize that time – and prioritization – is a zero-sum game. They keep adding priorities until everything is essential and the workload is unmanageable. New priorities should replace existing ones, not be added to an already extensive to-do list.

Use this rule of thumb: Whenever you prioritize one project, which one will you deprioritize?

Default to asynchronous communication

Urgent doesn’t always mean faster. Rushing work or focusing on the wrong priorities can waste your team’s time––especially when they need to fix the mistakes caused by rushing without clear priorities.

Rethink how you approach communication: shift from reactive to proactive.

Synchronous communication is super-fast and works well when there’s a big fire. However, for normal issues, asynchronous communication is more effective. It allows people to design their day around work rather than meetings or calls, meaning they can achieve more.

As communication becomes more thoughtful and less urgent, people can be more mindful of how they process information and react. Fewer meetings, calls, and emails means more time to actually do things. It provides a calmer environment in which to do meaningful, high-impact work.

Asynchronous is more effective for deep work as it allows us to think things through before making a decision. It’s more effective for problem-solving, thoughtful decision-making, and deep work—what should be most of a knowledge worker’s job.

Zoom calls or meetings should be the last resort, not the first option.

Prepare for real emergencies

Discerning self-inflicted emergencies from real ones is crucial. It promotes a calmer working environment and induces a sense of urgency when it’s really needed. Also, when facing a real emergency, the team can take it seriously and not like it's just another fire drill.

It’s useful to know how to reach someone in an emergency. An escalation rule can help identify who should be contacted and which specific channel or method to use. This helps people understand that, if the protocol has been activated, it's a real emergency.

If there’s an emergency at Slack’s Future Forum team that requires contacting someone outside of office hours, team members must send a text message to that person’s phone. They will never send a Slack message at seven p.m. if something is urgent. People are not supposed to check or respond to messages in Slack after regular working hours.

When urgency is acute and constant, it can harm productivity. However, a balanced approach to urgency can turn speed into a competitive advantage. Discuss with your team what urgent really means. Move fast in the right direction – not in every direction.

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