Creating a Sense of Urgency

Twenty years ago, Robert Wolgemuth and I started a publishing company. We had a dream to publish books that truly made a difference, in people’s lives and in the overall culture.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/Alst, Image #6564669

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/Alst

The only problem was that we didn’t have much money. Our competitors had seemingly every advantage, including piles of working capital (or so we thought). All we had was a dream and our ability to respond quickly.

As it turned out, we signed numerous authors for less than the competition was willing to pay, simply because we moved fast and got the deals done. Many authors were willing to give up some advance money, believing that our hustle in signing them would translate into similar hustle in selling their books. More often than not, they were right.

Thus, responsiveness became our competitive advantage. We could never pay more than our competition and usually offered much less. But we could out-maneuver and out-flank almost all of them. We were lean and mean. As a result, we grew rapidly.

Unfortunately, in the 20-plus years since we began that venture, I have learned that there seems to be an inverse relationship between a company’s size and the sense of urgency embedded in the culture.

More often than not, small companies have a sense of urgency. Why? Because their very survival is at stake. If they don’t move quickly, they get squashed by larger, more established competitors.

On the other hand, it is rare to find large companies that truly have a sense of urgency. Their circumstances rarely demand it. They can continue with business-as-usual and do pretty well. Nothing has to be done today or even this week. Nothing is really at stake—or so they think. Often, by the time they wake up, it’s too late.

But in today’s environment, no one can afford to drift along with the status quo. Growth is not a foregone conclusion. Even survival cannot be taken for granted.

The companies that thrive in today’s economy will be those that can shift their cultures from the slower pace of business-as-usual to urgency. Because of this, I have made “Urgency” our annual theme for Thomas Nelson. I want this attribute to permeate every aspect of our culture. I know we have a long way to go.

But first, we have to understand it. To create a sense of urgency, we must do four things well:

The Urgency Wheel

  1. Activate. Like many larger organizations, we do lots of analysis. Obviously, this can be helpful. No one wants to go into battle without a carefully thought-through battle plan. But as everyone knows, analysis can easily lead to “analysis for analysis sake.” When this happens, the organization becomes paralyzed.

    Often the real issue is courage. The point of absolute certainty never comes. It is foolish to assume that it does. Instead, urgency requires that we activate quickly: Make a decision. Get off the dime. Do something!

    As the old adage goes, “it is easier to steer a moving object.” If you’ve made the wrong decision, you can adjust. But if you wait too long, you miss the opportunity entirely.

    More than ever, people want fast decisions. Speed can be a competitive advantage. But this requires leaders who are willing to activate and get themselves, their teams, and their projects into motion.

  2. Accelerate. Urgency requires more than activation. Yes, you have to start quickly, but you also have to keep things moving. Getting a project green-lighted is only the beginning.

    There are hundreds of impersonal forces (and some personal) that will conspire to slow you down—paperwork, approvals, processes, committees, budgets, etc. Some of these things are necessary—but not as many as you think or the organization would like you to believe.

    It is the nature of bureaucracies to become self-serving. When they do, the process becomes an end in itself. As a leader, you have to fight this. You have to identify obstacles and remove them. You must keep the pedal to the metal and keep things moving. If you don’t, inertia will take over and your project will die.

  3. Achieve. Cultivating a sense of urgency is all about producing results. All the stuff that it takes to produce results—paperwork, approvals, processes, committees, and budgets—are not an end in themselves. They are only the means. If you do all this and don’t accomplish your goals, you have lost.

    Too often people think that the objective is to complete their task list. If they do so, they think they have actually accomplished something. This is not necessarily the case. Tasks are a necessary but insufficient condition of achievement.

    My goal at Thomas Nelson is to create a culture that is outcome-focused rather than task-focused. I don’t care how we produce the results (within the appropriate ethical boundaries), so long as we produce them. We need to stay focused on the what and give our people room to decide the how.

  4. Assess. Urgency does not rule out assessment. In fact, it demands it. If we are going to get faster at producing results, we have to assess what is working and what is not. We must then eliminate the waste.

    Everything should be questioned in light of whether or not it impedes or facilitates the outcome. Does a meeting enable us to move more quickly? If so, great. Call a meeting. But so often we call meetings as a way to procrastinate the decision. Then a single meeting begets more meetings. Before you know it, you’ve built a slow, lumbering bureaucracy.

    The only antidote is to this is to eliminate everything that does not facilitate the desired outcome. Our job as leaders—as opposed to bureaucrats—is to remove the obstacles and give our people the best chance of achieving their goals and ours.

What specifically can you do to create more urgency? Try these:

  • Walk faster—show some hustle.
  • Respond faster to emails and voice mails. Don’t allow yourself to become someone else’s excuse for not getting their work done.
  • Get to the point quickly and insist that others do the same.
  • Keep meetings short and on-point. Always insist on an agenda.
  • Eliminate every piece of paperwork that doesn’t facilitate a specific outcome. My motto: “When in doubt, throw it out.”
  • Be quick to change tactics. If something is not moving you toward your desired outcome, do something else.
  • Do it now!

It’s easy to see a lack of urgency in others, but can you see it in yourself? What else can you do, beginning now, to create a sense of urgency in yourself, your department, and with your projects?

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  • http://www.giantperspectives.com/ Jeremie Kubicek

    Very Helpful Mike. Thank you. Responsiveness and acceleration are so needed in everyday business. This is key to get executives and key leaders to grasp and lead. Thanks for your thoughts!

  • http://www.giantperspectives.com Jeremie Kubicek

    Very Helpful Mike. Thank you. Responsiveness and acceleration are so needed in everyday business. This is key to get executives and key leaders to grasp and lead. Thanks for your thoughts!

  • http://www.newsinjector.com/about.html Vilmantas Baranauska

    I've found great advice here: http://zenhabits.net/2008/07/the-only-guide-to-ha

    "15. Slow down. Similar to simplifying, slowing down is just a matter of reminding yourself that there’s no need to rush through life. Schedule less things on your calendar, and more space between things. Learn to eat slower, drive slower, walk slower (unless you’re doing it for exercise). Going slowly helps to reduce stress, and improve the pleasure of doing things, and keeps you in the present moment."

    I think walking faster is wrong kind of urgency.

  • http://www.newsinjector.com/about.html Vilmantas Baranauskas

    I’ve found great advice here:
    http://zenhabits.net/2008/07/the-only-guide-to-happiness-youll-ever-need/

    “15. Slow down. Similar to simplifying, slowing down is just a matter of reminding yourself that there’s no need to rush through life. Schedule less things on your calendar, and more space between things. Learn to eat slower, drive slower, walk slower (unless you’re doing it for exercise). Going slowly helps to reduce stress, and improve the pleasure of doing things, and keeps you in the present moment.”

    I think walking faster is wrong kind of urgency.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/frequentfliertx frequentfliertx

    As the needs of a company's customer base changes, it is imperative that the company develop a strategy of urgency in order to meet the customers' demands in a timely and effective manner. In this ever changing world, it is important that we try to keep up and change along with it in order to remain in business. A company that refuses to change with the times is doomed for failure.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/frequentfliertx frequentfliertx

    As the needs of a company's customer base changes, it is imperative that the company develop a strategy of urgency in order to meet the customers' demands in a timely and effective manner. In this ever changing world, it is important that we try to keep up and change along with it in order to remain in business. A company that refuses to change with the times is doomed for failure.

  • http://www.feliciafredlund.com/ Felicia Fredlund

    Not the best post to read right before going to bed, hehe. I feel like I should run and do something, like starting all those things I've been planning to for a while, instead of messing around. Well, hopefully I'll feel the same tomorrow.

  • http://www.feliciafredlund.com/ Felicia Fredlund

    Not the best post to read right before going to bed, hehe. I feel like I should run and do something, like starting all those things I've been planning to for a while, instead of messing around. Well, hopefully I'll feel the same tomorrow.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/KNicholls KNicholls

    It never ceases to amaze me that God puts on your mind and in your heart some of the exact things I need to hear in my day. I love your blog for that very reason.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/KNicholls KNicholls

    It never ceases to amaze me that God puts on your mind and in your heart some of the exact things I need to hear in my day. I love your blog for that very reason.

  • Mary

    Often, I list what needs to be done and start the process of getting it done. I'm focused on the task at hand till completion and reward myself for finishing the project. What is the old cliche? Never put off til tomorrow what can be done today. Im motivated more when rewards await me. I loved your "A" words. Activate,Accelerate,Achieve, and Assess. Good article!

  • Mary

    Often, I list what needs to be done and start the process of getting it done. I'm focused on the task at hand till completion and reward myself for finishing the project. What is the old cliche? Never put off til tomorrow what can be done today. Im motivated more when rewards await me. I loved your "A" words. Activate,Accelerate,Achieve, and Assess. Good article!

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  • mjdaniel

    I'm currently working with 5 Fortune 100 companies, and you could not be correct! We call it analysis paralysis. All organizations have to steward their money wisely, but some decisions are just common sense. They were common sense when you went all in starting the business, and they're still common sense today. Don't spend $150K on analysis to tell you what your gut already does.

    • mjdaniel

      more correct. You could not be more correct. Dang… I hate when I get in a hurry. :)

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  • Bohes

    Not sure if it’s just size that impacts urgency. It could be a mixture of size, culture & organizational philosophy. Does the organization allow rapid response? Is it flat or heirchical? Does it really recognize the power of people or is it lip service? It’s a very complex topic, but if a company has filled it’s ranks with winners and thinkers, it probably can be big and agile. Apple seems a good model from a distance. Just thinking aloud.

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  • http://DesignedToCreate.com/ Kelley, Designed to Create

    This is fantastic and practical just as much today as the 3 years ago when this looks like it was posted. Working on a new idea from ground up is difficult. “Activate, Accelerate, Achieve, Assess,” is a rocking basic outline to refer to when I feel like I am going on a rabbit trail. This is going to be a post it note next to my monitor this week. Thanks.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Awesome, Kelly. I am so glad you found it helpful!

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  • http://warrenwhitlock.com/social-media-expert Warren Whitlock

    We want people to be engaged and passionate about the mission.

    That doesn’t translate through layers of management, so while the individuals may be passionate, it gets lost in translation