Fiona Passantino, early June 2023
Teams who hear the words “urgent” and “crisis” too often, the word begins to lose its meaning and eventually, it starts to get tuned out. If everything is urgent and all things need to happen “yesterday”, then something further up the chain is going wrong. Five ways to manage urgency and lower the temperature.
We have a full plate of work, and then something urgent comes in that needs to be “done yesterday”. We push aside our scheduled tasks and take on the urgent, new thing. We don’t ask what of our regular assignments we can drop nor which of our deadlines we can delay to compensate.
In general, we put our heads down and get it done, catching up in the evenings and on weekends.
And then, another urgent project. And another. Urgent projects morph into crises, and the usual “run” work slowly starts to become urgent due to sheer neglect.
Overwhelmed, high-performing teams don’t complain or escalate. They work more, organize better, do it faster, and feel safe in their over-delivery.
Like the boy who cried wolf, teams who hear the words “urgent” and “crisis” too often, the word begins to lose its meaning and eventually, it starts to get tuned out. If everything is urgent and all things need to happen “yesterday”, then something further up the chain is going wrong.
And if everything is urgent, in the end, nothing is.
Most of the time, leaders are not doing work themselves and sometimes forget how much time certain tasks take to complete. High-functioning teams often spare their leaders the details of small things going wrong in a normal working flow – the endless email back-and-forths when a supplier misses a step or the small mistakes that take many hours to resolve.
There is no shame in saying “no” when the goal is to deliver a quality result with the original load, keep promises made and deliver on time. But in a culture of high engagement, saying “no” is not standard practice. Faint signals might be emerging that are too weak to hear.
Five easy ways to manage urgency
The key is awareness of one’s own language, listening for faint signals that a team is suffering from urgency overload and classifying projects in no uncertain terms into urgency categories, usually resulting in downgrading most urgency levels from “screaming” to “indoor voices”.
Step 1: be aware
- The first step is to pay attention to what you are saying. Is everything a crisis? Do you ever say that something is “low-priority”, “longer-term” or “unimportant”? Or is your own language peppered with terms like: “burning platform”, “disaster” or “screaming mess”?
- Repeat to yourself: if everything is urgent, then nothing is.
Step 2: listen for weak signals
- Watch for signs that a team is suffering from urgency overload.
- Verbal signs: intra-team micro-aggressions, conflict and misunderstandings, fewer offers to help.
- Non-verbal signs: fewer spontaneous social moments, less laughter, fewer jokes, fewer signs of gratitude.
- Written signs: emails and texts opening with the words “sorry I’m responding late”, “apologies for not getting back” and similar, and needing to remind people to respond to emails from a few days ago, doubtless buried under a stack of flagged items.
- Physical signs: fewer workers in-office (using their commute time to catch up), fewer small social events, fewer people volunteering to organize them
Step 3: classify
- Have a look through everything your team is doing and prepare a series of (digital) stickers for your (miro) board, about 4 of them, ranging in color as follows:
- Red = crisis
- Orange = urgent
- Blue = normal
- Green = low-priority
- RED: Certain crises need immediate attention – mostly things we do not expect and cannot control happening to us. These things happen everywhere, all the time, without warning, and are worth us dropping what we are doing to mitigate. These get the (mental) red sticker ad truly need to be done yesterday.
- ORANGE: Highly important matters we see coming, over which we have a marginal amount of control, with tight deadlines and high visibility, are worth putting to the top of the backlog and labeled “urgent”. This is not a crisis, but a high-impact task that needs to happen now.
- BLUE: the blue sticker is for all those regular, “run” tasks that we do every day, and are part of our regular cycle. The kinds of things that, if they are a day late now and then, will not disrupt many other processes. A blue sticker is a signal to the team that if they have to take up a red or orange item, they can go ahead and drop a blue or green one without having to ask (and send one more cc email to the world).
- GREEN: When something doesn’t have to happen immediately, regardless of importance, value or visibility, it is a low priority. This doesn’t mean it gets relegated to the parking lot to die a slow death, but can be scheduled during downtimes. Starting an email with the salutation “This is not urgent, but…” says enough. Practice tells that even these openers do not reduce waiting time by very much but do reduce general blood pressure.
Step 4: Set up the board
- In the typical Agile board, you will have certain areas to work with: a backlog, a sprint cycle and a parking lot.
- At the beginning of a sprint cycle, we build the board.
- All items, regardless of color, start in the backlog.
- We pull the orange items first into the sprint cycle and give them top priority.
- Then, the orange, and finally blue and green.
- Whatever can’t fit into the sprint cycle stays in the backlog until the next cycle or gets relegated to the parking lot to pull at on a rainy day.
- If more red and orange items appear, they kick the blue and green items off the sprint board, back into the backlog; this gives the team an instant overview of what the priorities are, and what needs attention first.
- It also sends the signal further up the chain that urgency comes at a cost; we have to make choices to do the things that matter and not just keep piling higher.
Step 5: Show the board up the chain
- This simple visual tool makes it clear to everyone up the chain that your team has a certain capacity to do a certain amount of work in a certain period of time (in Agile speak, this is called “velocity”).
- During your N+1, board or stakeholder meetings, showing this board will explain the choices you and your team are making in line with current priorities.
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About Fiona Passantino
Fiona is a Culture, Engagement and Communications expert, helping teams and leaders engage, inspire and connect their teams through her company Executive Storylines. She is a speaker, facilitator, trainer, executive coach, podcaster blogger, YouTuber and the author of the Comic Books for Executives series. She also has a weekly radio show on Den Haag 92 FM on the Future of Work.
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