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Today’s blog post is a guest post from David Hassell. David is a serial entrepreneur and current founder & CEO of 15Five, a SaaS company that enables organizations to streamline communication and feedback. Follow him on Twitter @dhassell.



Running a company isn’t what it used to be. And I mean this literally. The days of sitting comfortably in an executive suite, corner office, or at the head of a boardroom table seem a little archaic now, especially when technology has allowed leaders and teams to collaborate and work together from almost all corners of the planet.

So how does one run a business without everyone under constant, in-person surveillance? Communication is the key.

A great example is Patagonia founder, Yvon Chouinard — the inspiration behind why I built 15Five. Chouinard was able to keep in close contact with his team and grow his business even though he spent half his year out of the office, climbing mountains instead. His method? Simple: he asked his employees to spend 15 minutes writing a report that would take his managers 5 minutes to read.

This system kept Chouinard in the loop wherever he was and alerted him, and his managers, to any important issues or concerns before they became urgent. It allowed him to surface issues before they became full-blown problems. It opened the lines of communication allowing leaders in his organization to be proactive instead of reactive. It was this type of management that afforded Chouinard the luxury of building a successful company while simultaneously pursuing his other passions.


The Difference Between Urgency and Importance

At work, we are often working under pressure to solve a problem, but we don’t always know the difference between problems of true importance and those that just feel urgent.

An urgent issue is one which requires immediate attention, and if it isn’t dealt with straight away, will have immediate consequences. This consequence might not be detrimental long term, but because it is time sensitive, it is assigned priority over what might be considered an issue with lasting impact but no instant repercussions.

Then there are what we would classify as important issues: ones with significant effects but a seemingly flexible deadline. Although we know they deserve proper attention, we tend to gravitate towards the instant gratification of handling something urgent. In an ideal world, more time should be dedicated to important issues and less on what simply appears to be urgent.


We’re All Chasing Mr. Right Now

As we saw above, leaders who tend to cater to what’s urgent rather than what’s important are behaving reactively instead of proactively. A team lead by a reactive chief firefighter will spend most of their time putting out fires rather than implementing fire-preventing processes and moving on to the truly important matters at hand, like building products, providing exceptional service, and striving to reach team goals.

When leaders become bogged down in the day-to-day grind and concern themselves only with what is urgent, there is no time to concentrate on the higher level initiatives and goals that are needed to really move a company forward. If your list of to-dos is filled with “urgent this” and “urgent that”, it might be time to assess how to better organize, delegate, and manage your time.

As a leader, your vision is crucial for mapping out the trajectory of your business. A leader who is constantly panicked and rushing to get things done will not have time to focus on a clear vision and is leading (poorly) by example. And that leadership style will permeate the entire culture of an organization.


How to Be Productive in the Distraction Culture

Distractions in the workplace — like noisy or chatty co-workers, or a torrential downpour of emails and instant messages — only make the urgency vs. importance matter worse. People to lose focus on the task at hand and rush to put out small fires, which in turn creates deadline-related crunches when bigger, important assignments are due.

To help your employees focus on the work that matters, implement distraction-avoidance strategies in your office, such as:

  • Mask noise with “pink noise systems” that are calibrated to the same frequency as the human voice

  • Re-design noisy open plan areas to include quiet spaces

  • Allow the use of headphones

  • Introduce software that aids focus such as productivity timers

  • Allow your employees to give themselves blocks of quiet time when they don’t have to answer phones or reply to emails immediately

To facilitate a culture where important issues take precedent over urgent ones, set your team up in an environment and with tools that can help channel their energy toward the proper goals.


It’s Not Just The Noise: How To Adjust Our Priority Filters

The list above speaks to solving the practical problems of team distraction, which is crucial. However, how do we also help our teams to make that mental shift from putting out the small fires and putting our focus into solving long term issues? After all, employees get instant rewards or satisfaction for solving “urgent” problems, which encourages them to keep chasing those opportunities for praise even though they don’t really move the company forward.

On the other hand, many teams forget to praise the long-term grind of “important” work, which makes focusing down and moving the company forward often feel thankless. How can you create a culture that rewards important work, and discourages chasing the easy wins of urgent problems?

To avoid procrastination on larger, foundational, projects, try these tips:

  • Cement deadlines and create accountability within the team by making people responsible for certain projects that they “own”

  • Break down big tasks into incremental urgent tasks with due dates and rewards

  • Make a mind map of all the the things that contribute to business goals. If what you are working on doesn’t push the needle (in terms of sales, reach, traffic, inquiries — whatever your metric is) then scrap it.

Sometimes the best way for leaders and employees to push towards important issues and avoid getting trapped under a pile of emergent issues is through visualization – calendars, lists, and mind maps are just a few suggestion to take an overwhelming problem and making it feel approachable and less scary.

As a leader, be clear with your deadlines when you assess them and when you assign them. Set realistic deadlines that give people enough time to do the best work they can. Show your team the example they need to follow when sorting through their priorities, by keeping yourself organized and focusing on long term wins in your own work (instead of short term rewards).


How to Kick Reactive Leadership Habits

Proactive leaders are those who, by communicating a clear vision and strategy, inspire their employees to work towards it. If you catch yourself being reactive, responding in haste or buried under clutter, take pause. These habits can turn into quicksand and before you know it, you’re up to your eyeballs in wasted time. Use this pause to identify the inefficiencies creating urgencies and derailing important issues.  Task your team with helping you find solutions that help avoid these bottlenecks. And of course, consistently check in on your team so you can stay on top of any potential problems before they have a chance to surface.

These lines of communication will act as a preventative measure against small fires and in the end make everyone’s day-to-day lives easier and calmer, leaving them mental space and fortitude to concentrate on the clear direction and objectives of the business.


It Starts and Ends With: Listening

We often quote leaders because of something inspirational they said. Often, however, it’s not what they say that makes them great leaders, but instead it is their ability to listen quietly, to learn from their team, and to create an environment where everyone can do their best work. If you don’t bend your ear to the voices of your team, you run the risk of drowning out the pulse of your business.

A leader that listens for that pulse can spot the difference between running tirelessly on a hamster wheel going nowhere fast or climbing a mountain towards the breathtaking summit. Which one would you rather do?


Tags: better leader, decisions, leadership, leadership practice, management, team,

2 Responses to “Urgency vs. Importance: Reactive Leadership Is Deadly”

  1. Todd Deshane

    Really great advice!

    Who is this type of information most useful for? Within a small/medium business, who are the people that will most benefit? Who to reach with this and how?

    As we all know, organizational culture and climate are hard to change. Any advice on how to get the suggestions in this post adopted by the right people within the organization?

    • Lauren

      Todd, this advice is most useful for teams of any size that wish to be nimble and efficient. For an organization to adopt these practices, we as individuals must desire and commit to processes that make us more effective and efficient. You’re absolutely right that organizational culture is hard to change –which is why it’s crucial to intentionally cultivate it from Day One. As for implementing the advice into an already established culture, lead by example. Start with yourself and demonstrate the behaviors and value you wish to instill. Thanks for the comment!