Monday, February 21, 2011

Misplaced Urgency

Most experienced software developers have experienced a sense of urgency multiple times throughout their careers. There are positive aspects associated with a sense of urgency. such as motivating people to work harder and/or better. However, there are also negative effects of misplaced or false urgency such as distraction from what really deserves attention and allowing short-term decisions to override better long-term decisions while putting out fires. In this post, I look at techniques that can be used to create and properly maintain a sense of urgency and actions that can detract from a sense of urgency.

Authentic Source of Urgency

Phony urgency doesn't fool people for long. Any sense of urgency needs to be associated with real deadlines that really matter and for which there are real consequences if the deadlines are not met.

Significant Source of Urgency

Most developers are only going to feel a real sense of urgency if something significant and substantial is involved. If the end result for which the sense of urgency exists is small or deemed insignificant, then it is difficult to create or maintain that sense of urgency.

Actions Speak Louder than Words

Behaviors that belie urgency will completely drown out any spoken words regarding urgency. A manager who tells his or her employees that extra effort is required to accomplish a certain task in a limited amount of time needs to be sure not to behave in ways that detract from this message. If that same manager holds overly long meetings, involves extraneous individuals in the meeting who don't need to be there and don't have anything to add, or otherwise unnecessarily distracts people will have a difficult time convincing anyone that there is a real sense of urgency. A manager who tells his or her entire team that there are some tough deadlines approaching and finds a way to stuff 15 minutes of substance into an hour-long meeting is really sending a message that is entirely different than what he or she is saying. Similarly, unnecessary process or other nonproductive behaviors are quickly recognized by developers and reduce any credibility about an advertised sense of urgency.

Significant Actions Are What Matters

Some actions and behaviors matter more in establishing and maintaining a sense of urgency than others. For example, running between meetings to save a few seconds is probably not going to make a project due in five days be finished any sooner. However, highly organized communication techniques (short meetings, instant messaging, coordinator, etc.) can be used to improve the speed at which decisions are made and instituted.

The House Cannot Always Be On Fire

If a team is always running around frantically, the effect can begin to wear off. Too much urgency, especially if handled improperly, can backfire in the long run after some short term gains. If there is never an end in sight, developers may begin to not believe there is really a sense of urgency, may look for less chaotic situations, or may just give up. This isn't to say that a sense of urgency cannot be maintained; it's just that the urgency needs to be reasonable and real.

Share the Rewards

When developers respond to a sense of urgency, they should be allowed to enjoy the satisfaction associated with meeting a deadline or other milestone that caused the urgency in the first place. Individual and team recognition is often appreciated and motivating. Monetary compensation is never turned down either.

Externally Generated Urgency is Better Received than Internally Caused Urgency

Most developers will respond better to urgency caused by external forces such as market pressures, competitive forces, and customer demands. Many developers respond less enthusiastically if it is perceived that urgency is required due to mismanagement, neglect, incompetence, or other dysfunctional behavior within their own organization.

Don't Tie Urgency to Moving or False Deadlines

If a manager establishes a sense of urgency by advertising a deadline that somehow keeps moving or turns out not to be a real deadline, it is likely that same manager will have a difficult time doing that again. Developers are likely to be suspicious of any real or hard deadlines and to suspect the manager of trying to manipulate them.

The Best Sense of Urgency is My Sense of Urgency

In the movie The Other Boleyn Girl, Lady Elizabeth tells her daughter to live with and learn from the Queen of France and instructs her: "Observe the ladies of the court. See how they achieve what they want from their men, not by stamping their little feet but by allowing the men to believe that they, indeed, are in charge. That is the art of being a woman."

This can be the most effective way to establish a sense of urgency: allow developers to know what deadlines (external or internal) are coming and the consequences of making or missing those deadlines. Developers will soon be able to conclude for themselves that there is a sense of urgency. Developers will think it was their idea because it was their idea (even if you had it first). Most people, including developers, respond better to their own ideas and own perceptions than they do to the ideas they feel are foisted upon them by others. Providing the data to allow developers to recognize for themselves the sense of urgency may be a little trickier than just advertising it directly, but it can be much more beneficial. Of course, this approach relies on there being a real and substantial reason for a sense of urgency.

Respond Appropriately to Sense of Urgency

This should go without saying, but I'll write it here anyway. A sense of urgency is useless, or, even worse, detrimental if the responses to the sense of urgency are dysfunctional. Short-term thinking cannot be allowed to ruin long-term prospects. A sense of urgency can motivate extra effort and greater efficiency, but can also lead to negative consequences if responses to it are not managed properly.


A sense of urgency can be a useful thing. In fact, I have found that it can even be a little more fun and exciting to have an appropriate degree of urgency when it is appropriately handled and exists for a truly urgent need. However, there are few things more disappointing than being the victim of a false or over-exaggerated sense of urgency. (30 July 2007) (11 December 2003)

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