Nothing to Hurry About – How to Manage by Purpose instead of Urgency

But, it’s urgent! We are late! We need to hurry – our client expects this. There it is, a stakeholder calls to put “a bit of pressure” on the team, to “go the extra mile” or “work double as fast”. All in order to meet a milestone, add another feature or meet an impossible deadline. And as you crack your whip and shout “Faster!” your team miraculously pulls through – another crisis averted, another deadline meet.

Or not. Because this scenario rarely plays out like that. And even if it does, managing through urgency comes at both a high risk and price. Let’s take a closer look and evaluate if there is an alternative.

Management by Urgency

The first thing you loose under the impression of urgency is your ability to focus on and reflect about what you are doing. To ask why you are doing what, when and how, to reflect about sensible approaches, possible caveats and creative solutions. Whatever plan everybody had, it will soon falter under the onslaught of urgency and give way to doing as much as possible as fast as possible.

As time progresses and pressure rises, in order to speed up even more, people will start taking short cuts and getting sloppy in their work. Which in turn will lead to errors that are going to take longer to fix than the original task. In an atmosphere of urgency, an ever quicker succession of status reports, crisis meetings and emergency measures will disrupt your teams productive flow and eat away precious production time.

Instead of getting a faster team, you get an even slower team. Instead of getting a better product, you get a worse product. And, worst of all: It won’t work – for long. Like with any drug, people get used to and therefore numb really quick if they are exposed to a constant state of artificial urgency.

In summary: If you value actions over results, you might very well get plenty of action and one result: A dysfunctional and disgruntled team as well as a broken product.

Management by Purpose

An alternative to management by urgency is management by purpose. A shared understanding of why something is created or done can be a powerful motivator for a group of people. Together with a culture of trust, appreciation and solidarity it will give your team more drive than any tight milestones, micro-time logging or rapid fire status mails. Act as part of your team, as coach, as support, as a leader in example.

In the best of worlds, this setting would have been established in an earlier, less critical phase of the project. But even in the midst of crisis, you can still attempt to evoke it through powerful gestures. One would be to assume responsibility for the current situation and admit your own error where necessary. Another is staying calm and focused on solutions instead of blame. But, the most powerful gesture I found is the dedication to and defense of your team. Taking the heat for them, relieving them of pressure by getting the schedule relaxed by just a bit, pushing just one of the impossible features out of scope, all of this can earn you high credit. Which you will need plenty of, if you attempt to instill a sense of purpose and a shared mission in the midst of a crisis.

What you are trying to do here is, shifting the focus from an extrinsic motivation – the whip in it’s many forms – to an intrinsic one. Which is both the more challenging and rewarding path, in regards to product and people, be it short term or long term.

Thanks for the great inspiration Kimber Lockhart.

Image: Frederic Remington, 1895, What an Unbranded Cow Has Cost, Yale University Art Gallery