I just left a very typical company that is facing the economic peril all around us.
This is what I observed:
Finger pointing. Everyone I spoke with said the firm was facing a difficult time, some talking in terms of a mild hurricane, others a full blown tsunami. But an astonishingly large number of people saw the problem, or the action required to solve the problem, as «over there.» They — the marketing department, the senior management, the engineers, the government — need to act swiftly. When I could fit it into the conversation without sounding absurdly accusatory, I asked: and you, what are you doing? The most common response was mildly defensive, or frustrated, or surprised that I would assume they could do anything meaningful to deal with the mess that those people had caused and that some other group was making worse. When people see the problem and solution as «over there,» they typically do little to change what they are doing. If you think about it, that’s only logical. It’s also the very essence of complacency.
Frenetic (and unproductive) activity. When I asked senior management at this firm if their people had a sense of urgency to deal with the new, potentially perilous challenges they faced, the verdict varied from «some» to «plenty.» Almost no one thought my question worth discussing, even if only for a few minutes. The evidence of the storm was everywhere, they correctly pointed out. Twenty-four hours a day on the news channels. It doesn’t require an IQ of 150 to see that the company could face slack demand for most of its products. Non-essential projects must be cut. Some jobs will probably have to be cut. People are exhausted going from meeting to meeting trying to make difficult decisions. The lights are on at 8:00 p.m. We created nine new task forces last week. Is there a sense of urgency? Are you kidding? Just look around you.
I do look around. In places where there is not the finger-pointing complacency, what I see is anxiety- or anger-driven activity. Not productivity or results — just activity. I do see people nearly running down the halls. But they seem to be running in circles. Power-point presentations are expanding fast. Those meetings are achieving…what? It’s not obvious to me, the outsider. This isn’t a powerful sense of urgency to move quickly and intelligently to deal with a difficult situation. I’m not sure what it is. A false urgency?
Real urgency is a belief that, yes, there are big hazards and big opportunities out there (not just the former). More importantly, true urgency is a set of emotions, a gut-level feeling that we need to get up every single day with total determination to do something to deal with those hazards and opportunities and make some progress, no matter how modest, and do so today. It’s not naïve. It doesn’t assume you have the power to create a miracle, or that big problems can be solved in a day. But that doesn’t slow a resolve to do something now to help the firm win, no matter the circumstances.
True urgency leads to an almost hyper-alert behavior, a constant search for what you can do — even if it’s only making a useful comment that steers one meeting today in a more productive direction. True urgency is relentlessly sensible. Twelve-hour work days under tough conditions stress almost anyone out after a while; this actually impairs a sense of true urgency. With real urgency, people cut out low priority work and delegate more. They cooperate more with others who are taking smart action. They look for the opportunities hidden in the hazards. All of this increases the chances that the impact of the hazards will be minimal and new opportunities will be found.
There is a huge difference between 1) complacent, what-can-I-do feelings, 2) anxious, angry, flustered feelings, and 3) a deep determination to make something useful happen today so we will not just survive, but win. There is a huge difference in the actions that flow from these feelings. And there is no question about what we are seeing far too often right now, even in good companies, with good people, and good management. It’s complacency and false urgency. And both are very dangerous.
What can you do?
1) It all starts with seeing what is really going on. What are people around you, working for you, leading above you, really doing? Go out and look carefully. Search for data. It is not difficult to see the truth when you know what to look for.
2) Help others to see the reality. Yes, tell them. But also show them. Help them to go look for themselves.
3) Become a beacon of true urgency for all around you to see. Behave with a sense of real urgency yourself, each and every day. You don’t need to confront the complacent when you know they will be confused or angry. You don’t have to lecture those caught up in a false urgency. Show them what is needed. Your actions can be infective.