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Sense of Urgency

March 17, 2010

Managers often wish their teams had a “sense of urgency”. They want their teams to work with more focus, more drive, and more passion. While similar to momentum, a “sense of urgency” is actually quite a bit different. Momentum is something that’s been internalized by a team over a period of time; a sense of urgency is ephemeral. It’s often associated with specific goals that are almost within reach.

The benefits

When your team has a healthy sense of urgency, there’s excitement around what everyone is doing. People genuinely care about the end goal. People want to work together and help each other because this gets to the goal faster. People have a sense of mission, a sense that what they’re doing is important and meaningful. It’s an extremely healthy team dynamic that boosts morale naturally.

Even if deadlines are tight, teams with a sense of urgency have a sense of…possibility, a sense that something exciting is near. That excitement is reflected in everything they say and do. It’s resonates in meetings. You can feel the energy as you walk down the hall. People are genuinely happy to be at work.

Transparency is key

The key to a healthy sense of urgency is having transparency across the organization. In order for people to appreciate the importance of their work, they have to clearly understand how it fits into the big picture of what the organization is trying to do. If the goals of the organization are clear and compelling and people know how their work impacts them, you have the necessary ingredients to create urgency.

Creating a sense of urgency for your team is about making their work meaningful. It’s about conveying why something needs to be done. It’s about making the value of work self-evident to the point that there’s a tangible connection between an individual’s tasks and the goals of the entire organization.

You cannot create urgency artificially

Managers often take shortcuts in a vain attempt to create urgency. They don’t explain why something is important or valuable (they themselves may not even know). They set artificial deadlines to “create urgency”. They exaggerate vaguely, saying things like “If we don’t get this done by the end of the quarter, we might as well shut the company down”. They may feel like they are “managing” their teams when, in fact, they’re manipulating them. Team members have a fine sense of this — no one likes it.

When you force people to work long hours and weekends on tasks whose value in the context of the big picture is unclear, you destroy morale. Your team will stop trusting you. It will be hard to rally them when it’s really needed . Instead of passion, you’ll get cynicism and apathy. People won’t know what’s really important — maybe they’ll even stop caring. You’ll create pockets of misalignment within the organization.

The best way to create a sense of urgency within your team is to share as much as you can with them. Sketch out the situation and see what they think. You’d be surprised at how much insight your team has. Sometimes your team can create a sense of urgency on their own…if you let them.

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