One of the traits I look for in members on my team is a sense of urgency. This does not mean I want people who work frenetically or amp up the stress level of those around them in order to get things done. My definition of sense of urgency is knowing how to get the right things done, in the right amount of time, with the right amount of input and resources. There are many different ways that one might fail with regard to sense of urgency. Sometimes it is because a person just doesn’t have that trait. We know the person: someone who moves like a ground sloth and needs to be guided every step of the way. Ideally, this kind of person never gets hired onto your team, or you find ways to “de-cruit” them off your team. Other obstacles to executing with a sense of urgency are the fear of failure and the desire for perfection; often, these traits are different sides to the same coin.
One of the first times I remember encountering this as a leader was early in my career after I had returned from a vacation. It was before email or the widespread use of cell phones (yes, there was such a time, long ago), and when I got to the office, my foreman informed me of something bad that had happened while I was away that needed to be immediately addressed. He knew what needed to be done, but he wanted to wait until I got back to make sure I was OK with his decision. Now the building wasn’t burning down, but the issue was very time-sensitive and a timely response would have mitigated the damage. I told my foreman that, in the future, I would always support his decision, even if it was a bad one, but I would not support his indecision. I then proceeded to quote lyrics by the band Rush and said, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” (At this point in my young career, I thought it was pretty cool that I could incorporate rock lyrics into my leadership lessons.) The end result was the foreman knew the right decision, but he had wanted his decision to be perfect by having my agreement.
Later in my career, I ran into different instances of perfection-seeking at some of the bigger companies where I worked. Out in the field, we would develop a new business model or service, and we would be rolling it out in our area to our customers. Suddenly, it would get a lot of positive press in the company, and we would get summoned to the corporate office to demonstrate or explain our new idea. “Brilliant!” management would exclaim, whereupon it would be decided that we were now going to be part of a companywide initiative to roll out this new idea. Of course, it meant we had to postpone the roll-out of the idea in our area because we now were part of a taskforce that would meet regularly to discuss, debate, and design this new initiative. If you understand the phrase, “A camel is a horse that is designed by a committee,” then you will get it when I tell you that many a beautiful horse got converted into functional-looking, but ineffective camels when these taskforces were done. Often, nothing got completed, and the initiative died a slow and quiet death. It didn’t happen because it was a bad idea, it happened because leadership decided they wanted the idea to be perfectly executed.
The challenge in having and acting with a sense of urgency is taking action with the right amount of information and being confident enough that your actions will be successful. The United States Marines call this approach the 70% Solution. They teach that it is better to decide quickly on an imperfect plan than it is to roll out a perfect plan too late. The ability to react quickly and effectively usually will outweigh other competencies. Yes, there are pitfalls with this approach, as one is bound to fail at times—probably 30% of the time. Yet, if you create a culture that emphasizes learning from mistakes rather than avoiding mistakes, you will find yourself surrounded by confident people who have ideas and more importantly, who are not afraid to act on them. So, when they have a tough decision to make, instill in your team the following:
If they have 70% of the information they need to make a sound plan, and they have 70% of the resources needed to make and execute the plan, and they are at least 70% confident that their plan will be successful, then make the decision to execute the plan.
Small, rapid-fire decisions will not only help you explore opportunities quickly, but will also keep you from needing to come up with one or two big, game-changing ideas that have larger repercussions. In an industry and business environment where there is often little differentiation, by acting quickly, but possibly imperfectly, you not only will come closer to a solution before your competition, you probably will exhaust them as they try to perfect what you are doing and still keep up with you.