The Battle Between the Urgent and the Important
In working with groups of managers in recent years, there are two ideas that have produced instant recognition and vigorous head nods that said these are serious and ongoing problems. The first is the idea that multi-tasking contrary to its typically positive reviews is a negative influence in organizations and in managers work lives. The second the subject of todays Managers Journal – is that constantly dealing with urgent matters crowds out focusing on the important and has a powerful demoralizing effect.
In the worst cases and there are a lot of them managers and their staffs do nothing but react to urgent matters. From morning till night, all they do is react to requests and surprises and put out fires. In one organization, staff cuts simply produced a redistribution of the same work with no clear guidelines with respect to priorities. Everything became urgent because everything was late.
In these circumstances, mistakes proliferate and customer dissatisfaction rises as performance declines and inter-unit conflict is stoked by the belief that other departments must have it better than we do, so screw them. There are other bad results. In this particular company, there is rapid turnover because people find the stress and the lack of any job satisfaction intolerable and leave, even if they dont have another job to go to. And, in a few instances, managers not low-level staff have gone out to lunch and simply not come back. A bad omen if ever there was one.
Although this organization is an extreme example, it is not unique. There are lots of other private, public and non-profit organizations in which the urgent has virtually eliminated paying attention to the important and the long-term. The results are variations of the ones I just described. People hate their jobs. There is a breakdown in trust. Blaming and blame avoidance rather than problem solving become dominant norms. Accountability is lost, because it is difficult to hold people accountable for things that are not achievable.
In the meantime, since everything is urgent and immediate, long-term important tasks and actions go undone. The urgent and the important are seldom the same. As the important is ignored, the decline of the organization or business becomes likely, if not inevitable.
It is worth mentioning that the urgency syndrome is completely different from the need for organizations to have a sense of urgency about fulfilling their mission, achieving their vision and serving their customers. In fact, the urgency syndrome will either prevent or impede these larger goals from being achieved.
A constant focus on the urgent and on crises is also very different from what Buddhists call "present-mindedness," which means focusing on what you are doing now. But it takes place within a context of larger things. When everything is urgent, there is no context, and there is only the present. People come to work with a single thought in mind: get through the day. When managers and supervisors start to think this way, the next wave of crises, urgent situations and unpleasant surprises is inevitably building up just out of sight. Like the current crisis, they wont see this one coming either.
Is this problem getting worse, and what are its sources? I believe it is becoming increasingly more serious. In the private sector, especially among large public companies that are driven by quarterly numbers, it has become significantly worse because top management is often indifferent to the fate of the little people who work at the operations level. The erosion of union strength has made it possible to treat managers and workers as infinitely replaceable commodities. In smaller businesses, direct competition and mimicking the big guys often drives the same short-term approaches, with similar effects.
In the public sector, the combination of stretched budgets, ongoing service commitments and union protections have had a contradictory impact. The tendency of unions to protect the least productive people means that workloads for others increase or else the work doesnt get done. Productive and committed workers and managers end up being trapped in an environment marked by constant crises and surprises that devour their time. In my experience, this quality describes much of the public sector in the Virgin Islands, where a relative handful of dedicated people keep the place running. Never have so few done so much for so many with so little recognition.
Finally, in our modern age of reactionary government, where leaders have trashed the very governments that they lead, public service is seen as much less of a commitment then it was in the past. Often government is a place to get ones ticket punched on the way to a lucrative job in the private sector. Or being awarded a position is seen as an entitlement rather than a responsibility. In these areas, the Virgin Islands has unfortunately been ahead of the curve, achieving these negative goals well in advance of governments on the mainland.
Because of its diversity, it is difficult to characterize the non-profit sector. To some extent, the absence of a bottom line and access to funding sources that do not respond quickly to failure have insulated this sector. But that has also changed, and it is possible to make the case that especially for service agencies the American non-profit sector is in long-term decline. Fewer resources for doing the same or more work produces the kinds of imbalances where everything becomes urgent, and most of the work gets done by the dedicated few.
If this is a real and growing problem, are there solutions? What are some tools and approaches to either resolving or at least managing the problem effectively? Lots of very smart people have thought about this issue and come up with different approaches. For example, in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey suggests organizing work tasks in four quadrants: (1) important and urgent; (2) important but not urgent; (3) not important but urgent; and (4) not important and not urgent.
All of these approaches have real value, but I would suggest starting at a different level. There is a key person in defining the scale and nature of this problem, as well as the possibility of finding a solution. That person is my boss. If the person that I report to is open to a discussion about the overload of urgent items, there is hope. If they are not open to it or dont even grasp the concept, it is probably best to think about self-protective approaches, as well as those that protect people who report to you. Here are some very specific tools that can make a difference:
Self-assessment: A couple of simple questions are useful here. First, do I hate going to work? If so, why? Which of these reasons are controllable (by me) and which are not? Do I think about what I am going to do today or this week before I go to work? What messages do my answers to these questions send me?
The in-box exercise: Write down everything that you do during 15-minute periods over a period of three to four days. It is an invaluable exercise. Everyone who does it is surprised and finds things that they can change to give them more of a sense of order and control.
A realistic and organized to-do list: Organize this list by priority and stick to it. Coveys categories are as good as any. If this list is very long, do I have a problem effectively delegating work to others who should be doing some of these things?
Every day and each week, define your must does: Block time to finish at least one item each day and several during the week. It is amazing how our sense of accomplishment can be improved by simply being able to check off things that are actually finished, rather than having ten things that are mostly finished.
Clarify priorities with your dir
ect superior and with those who report to you. Here is what we are going to get done today, this week.
None of these tools is a panacea, but taken together and applied consistently, they can make a measurable difference in making work life more manageable and less stressful.
Editor's note: Dr. Frank Schneiger is the president of Human Services Management Institute, Inc., a 25-year-old management consulting firm that focuses on organizational change. Much of his current work is in the area of problems of execution and implementing rapid changes as responses to operational problems.
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Source Manager's Journal: The Battle Between the Urgent and the Important
The Battle Between the Urgent and the Important
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