does your team lack a sense of urgency?

If you’ve ever worked with someone who lacked a sense of urgency, you probably spotted it pretty quickly: Work languished, reminders were needed to push things forward, and the person generally didn’t seem terribly invested in how quickly things happened or whether they happened at all.

As destructive as that can be when it’s one person, it’s far more damaging when it’s a whole team. If the description above comes uncomfortably close to describing how your team operates, it’s time to do some thinking about how to inject more of a sense of urgency into your team culture. Of course, to be clear, “sense of urgency” shouldn’t mean panic or chaos, but rather that people are engaged and driving work forward with a sense that the speed of execution matters.

Here’s how you can get more of a sense of urgency on your team.

Model an appropriate sense of urgency yourself. This doesn’t mean that you should be racing around, yelling at people, or injecting anxiety into every planning meeting. It means showing through your actions that you care about driving toward results. For example, don’t load yourself or others down with low-impact work, spot and remove obstacles to work, keep meetings short and to the point (and insist on an agenda!), be responsive when people need your input, be rigorous about deadlines, don’t let projects just “drop,” and follow up when something isn’t happening in an appropriate amount of time.

Set expectations for projects up-front. All too often, managers get frustrated because a piece of work isn’t moving along as quickly as it should be, when they haven’t actually made their expectations explicit. Don’t hide the ball by making your staff guess what kind of timeline will seem on-track to you versus too leisurely; tell them. At the start of a project, talk through prioritization and any interim deadlines, and share whatever is in your head about timing – which could be anything from “I want to share a preliminary plan in the executive team meeting next week, so can you get me a draft in two days?” to “we have some time on this, but I’d like it finished by the end of the month.”

Set expectations more broadly, too. Talk explicitly with team members about how you want them to approach their work in general. For example, you might explain that a key to success on your team is having a bias toward getting things done and finding solutions when obstacles crop up.You could also explain that you don’t want team members to simply execute a series of activities that you assign them, but rather that they should see themselves as truly responsible for the success of their realms and for figuring out how to keep work moving forward.

Make sure each project has a single owner who is charged with keeping that project moving. When projects don’t have clear owners, they’re far more likely to languish. You might think that increasing the number of people responsible for the overall success of a project would increase its chances of success, but generally what happens is that the overall responsibility gets diffused and no one feels truly responsible for ensuring results.

Explain the reason behind deadlines. People are much more likely to work with urgency when they understand the need for it. “The client goes on vacation after Friday so if we don’t get her sign-off now, we’ll have to wait two more weeks” is a lot more compelling than “get this done by Thursday.”

Make a point of not creating a sense of urgency when things aren’t truly high priority. If everything is treated as urgent, then over time your team is likely to operate as if nothing is. You’re going to get much better results from people if you show that you apply some judgment (and allow them to apply judgment too) about what truly does require fast action and what doesn’t. Also, when people work in an environment where everything must happen now, they eventually burn out. So make sure that you’re careful to note when things aren’t rushes and can wait until it’s convenient.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 30 comments… read them below }

  1. Jane*

    I have the opposite problem – we have a huge sense of urgency around everything we do no matter whether there is a reason to or not. Its just assumed that everything is an emergency and it causes a lot of panic and anxiety. But I think that is par for the course in certain industries like mine (Biglaw).

    1. Beezus*

      I think that’s an equally bad problem. When everything is urgent, nothing is, really. You lose the ability to fast-track the things that really need it, because urgency loses all meaning and any capacity to have to go the extra mile is always, always committed with all the other things. You don’t have any reserves.

      1. Sammie*

        Thank you for reposting this. I work for Mr. Everything.Is.Urgent.And.Due.Yesterday.

        In other news–I’m back on Xanax :)

    2. Kelly O*

      I can relate to this.

      It helps me sometimes, because I can calmly handle the urgencies my boss tries passing along, but that backfires because he does not feel I’m “moving quickly enough” – I have not yet been able to explain that I am not physically capable of doing two things at the literal exact same time, and I am already working on Project X, that he said was an urgent priority fifteen minutes ago, and will be done shortly. I can then move on to Urgent Project Y.

      Like others have said, when everything is urgent, nothing is. One does not need to feel like they have to be constantly running around like a chicken with it’s head cut off to be productive and efficient. (And you can stop and take care of bio needs too. I’ve said rather loudly more than once that I will be a lot more effective if I can take three minutes to run to the restroom, or ten minutes to eat lunch.)

      1. Beezus*

        That reminds me of the time I changed schools in elementary school, and the other students at my new school quickly pegged me as “not a fast runner” in recess games. After a few days, I figured out if I switched my long, loping strides for short, furious ones, I was deemed a much faster runner and stopped being chosen last for teams, despite not actually getting from Point A to Point B any faster. It was all about the motion.

  2. Confused Publisher*

    Alison, I’m in the UK and reading on mobile, and I’ve just been cycled through a selection of advertisements (adking among them) and then my ISP told me that your website had been blocked because it contained content that it was not permissible for me to view. I’ve got pop ups disabled, and cookies disabled, and this is continuing to happen.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Damn. I was going to turn them off altogether but then they thought they had them fixed. I’ll revert back to the original plan. Thank you for telling me.

      1. Confused Publisher*

        Thank you so very much for taking the time to look into this.
        Every so often I’ll think the problem is gone, and then wham! Mid paragraph the annoying advertisements start up. It’s especially irritating to not be able to get back to the site until I close the window, open a new browser window… By which time of course I’ve lost my place. And the cycle may have repeated by the time I’ve even found what I was looking for in the first place.

      2. eemmzz*

        Another issue with the ads is they impact performance. Scrolling becomes choppy in comparison to when they’re off like now.

      3. Mabel*

        I never have these problems – would it help to know which browsers/versions we’re using in that case?

  3. The Other Dawn*

    I love that everyone on my team works with a sense of urgency. Although, that wasn’t always the case. At OldJob I had someone who just seemed to plod along and nothing really lit a fire under him. He got all his work done and was accurate, but there were times when he should have moved more quickly, because it could have prevented a loss of funds or a missed regulatory deadline. Looking at him outside of the work environment, that just seemed to be his MO in general.

    1. AnonInSC*

      I’d argue that he didn’t get his work done at all – losing funds and missing regulatory deadlines? He wasn’t doing his job.

      1. nofelix*

        On the other hand, if he was hitting internal deadlines but this meant work was late, then was he being mis-managed? I’m assuming this is what ‘got all his work done’ means. He didn’t take proactive measures, or go above and beyond. Which leads to Alison’s good management credo of setting clear expectations. If missing regulatory deadlines and funds are as important as they sound, getting these done shouldn’t have been up to employee discretion.

  4. Menacia*

    I work on a Helpdesk so you would think we would have specific SLAs, but we don’t have any (or at least any that are enforced), so depending upon the technician, urgent items sit, or they get handled. Once users find out who is the most responsive, they go around the usual issue/request process directly to that person. I have had to set my chat function when I’m not on the phones (we each man the phone one day a week) to an “Away” status, and also when users email me directly, ask them to please email our helpdesk. Having to stop and manage users is very disruptive and take me away from projects that need my full attention.

    We moved from an environment where there was an Analyst/Manager in the group (me) who would make sure tickets were assigned correctly, the load was balanced, made sure site visits were scheduled, clients were updated, and tickets were updated/closed. Now we each manage ourselves, so tickets sit, usually because the technician does not know how to make a decision to save their life (literally!). I have moved into a more SME/Project Manager role, even though I still do technical support. I see what is going on with the tickets, and we received a not so stellar response back to our user survey, in part due to our response times. I am reluctant to say anything to our manager because she makes decisions off the cuff, if something is not working, she’ll decree something else, again without much thought. I’m trying to get as much experience as I can to start looking for other opportunities.

    1. Sharon*

      I used to work for a company like that. Just before I finally resigned for another job I had nothing to do between projects, so asked my supervisor if he had anything I could do. He gave me a handful of trouble tickets (software) that had been assigned to him. A couple of them were more than five years old! When I emailed the customer who submitted them, he said basically “nevermind, I finally took care of it myself”. That was SO embarrassing!

      1. Menacia*

        Yup, I love those types of landmines. My boss is great at throwing things for me to do from left field, because, as she likes to say (manipulate), “You’re the only one I trust to complete this (without asking me a million questions about it)!” So she would prefer to throw the ball completely away and not have to deal with it at all. Oh, she also does not respond to my emails with questions only she can answer (I don’t even email her that often because I can usually handle things myself), when I call her out on that, she tells me to come into her office and ask. Well, I would but either she’s not in her office or someone else is in there and they are just chatting. It’s taken me a long time, and I still struggle with it, to learned to not take things so seriously any longer, especially because no one else does, and I can’t take on that burden alone.

  5. Sharon*

    Team? Heck, what if it’s the entire company? Yesterday I was in a meeting where we were discussing problems getting documentation out to our customers and someone mentioned how time to market has been a KPI (key performance indicator) for our company for the last few years (subtext: we’re failing miserably on that one). Another person commented that “heck, it took us over ten years to complete the last project” in a tone like “don’t complain, this is how we do things”. My brain is screaming at me: pathetic! lips clamped tightly closed, though.

    1. Anansi*

      It’s my entire company too. And in particular, the leadership. It’s frustrating when it’s happening to a team you’re on, but it’s harder to address when it’s all your superiors who are causing the problem. We had a pretty solid team that worked well, but our CEO left and took a lot of staff with him so there was a ton of turnover. The new people have no idea what they’re doing so they’re reacting by basically refusing to make any decisions whatsoever. We have a huge project that is due tomorrow and we just got the specs for it last night. Ridiculous.

    2. CoffeeLover*

      I work in consulting and my last client was like this. It was so frustrating. Half my job was trying to light fires under people to get things done. Of course, it didn’t help I had no real authority over anyone and wasn’t even part of the organization. The project I was on was supposed to get done in 6months. We’re approaching a year now, and while I’ve left (thank god), they’re still working through it, dragging their feet, and asking me questions I’ve already addressed many times.

    3. nofelix*

      “it took us over ten years to complete the last project”

      What times do other companies achieve, for us to benchmark against? Are we trying to beat them on time, or can we be a little behind because we deliver better quality? If so, how much behind?

  6. Nobody Here By That Name*

    Good stuff. I would add make sure you’re giving your team the ability to actually DO things. My boss loves to whine about how nobody on his 10 person team ever gets things done, or pushes things to the finish line, and it’s always on him to make sure projects are completed, and nobody shares his sense of urgency, and blah blah. Except for all that he SAYS he wants us to keep things moving and take initiative, he can’t stop micromanaging long enough to let us actually DO it.

    So by his actions he’s taught us all that there’s no point in trying to take that ownership that he keeps insisting he wants us to have. I mean we can, but then we just set ourselves up for passive-agressive lectures about how stupid we all are and then have to redo hours of work anyway.

    He’s a lost cause on many levels, but tl;dr point being make sure you’re not just paying lip service to wanting your team to take action on things.

  7. NASAcat*

    I don’t even need to read the article to say I agree with all of it! I’ll read it now…

    My previous job did not necessarily require urgency, but when things needed to get done by my teammates they just sat there moving at the speed of molasses. It was one of the many reasons why I ultimately promoted and transferred departments.

  8. Ann Furthermore*

    I spent last year working with a group of people where everything was a panic, and yet, nothing ever got done. They waited until the last minute to do *everything* and then were always freaking out about missing deadlines. So yes, they worked with a sense of urgency, but I have truly never encountered a group of people so adept at wasting such stupendous amounts of time. They would send me emails with questions, including an example. Normally, you grab a screen shot, drop it into an email, and you’re done. Not them. No, they would export a bunch of stuff to Excel, turn it into a pivot table, add 3 different shads of color coding, draw circles around things, add arrows, text boxes, etc. And then after all that, I’d get an IM asking, “Can we have a call to discuss the email I just sent?” OMG. The amount of time they wasted just preparing emails was astounding. Then another time, I waited until the end of the day for them to be ready to calculate their revenue numbers. They had a submission deadline of midnight, and finally at 4:00 they told me they were ready. I asked what had taken so long, and they said they’d had to “prepare the billing rates.” It took everything I had to bite my tongue and not retort with, “By hand?”

    1. TL -*

      I once listened to two coworkers spend 20 minutes – I timed it – discussing what time to meet for coffee that afternoon. They knew it had to be between 12:50 and 1:20 but they were both so busy that it was really hard to nail down exactly when in that timeframe they should meet.
      (And, spoiler alert, they were both at least fifteen minutes late to the agreed upon time anyways.)

  9. Hot Chocolate*

    This is my team through and through. It’s not even ‘my’ team because I’m at the bottom of the pecking order, and in fact it’s the entire company of less than 10 employees (except Mrs Boss when she occasionally comes in – needless to say most of the employees don’t like it when she does because she kicks everyone up the butt to get moving).

    I moved into this uber laid-back company from a corporate environment and it was a huge culture shock to me that the entire team just lets deadlines pass. There’s absolutely no consequences for letting deadlines slide, so it happens all the time. I’m the only one who sticks to a deadline and that’s because I’m good at time management. Even my boss just kind of shrugs his shoulders when a deadline is missed. And it’s not like everyone is so busy they’re run off their feet – it’s a really laid back culture, feel free to go on Facebook and watch YouTube videos kind of deal. I can’t figure out why everyone keeps missing deadlines except that there are no consequences for doing so.

    I even had someone who interviewed me for a different company say that he didn’t think my current job was high stress enough for me to deal with the job I was after. I’ve been jobsearching for over a year now and I’m worried that being in such a laid back office is affecting my prospects.

  10. Cath in Canada*

    I used to have a flatmate who had the least sense of urgency I’d ever seen. We’d tell her we’d booked a cab for 8 pm to go out to a party, and when we’d yell upstairs that it was here she’d ask “so, what are you all wearing?” then finally wander outside, singing a nice little tune, at about 8:15. We tried giving her fake deadlines and leaving without her – nothing worked! She was super nice and very intelligent, but I always wondered if she was a PITA to work with!

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