Thoughts on startups by investors that
fund them & entrepreneurs that run them

6 Acts to Keep the Focus on Urgency vs Emergency

In business and startups, a “sense of urgency” is a good thing. Yet many entrepreneurs confuse this with a “sense of emergency,” which insidiously saps the life from their business. Urgency comes from a greater purpose focused outward, to make good things happen, while handling emergencies is a reactionary inward approach to saving ourselves from the daily crisis.

We’ve all known managers and executives that seem to thrive on emergencies, and often seem to instigate them. As a result, they are always too busy to proactively get to the urgent and strategic tasks, or provide the leadership and mentoring needed to motivate the team for the long haul.

In this era of rapid change and a competitive worldwide economy, every entrepreneur needs to instill in their team a sense of urgency, and be the role model for that mode. John P. Kotter in his book from a while back, “A Sense of Urgency,” asserts that urgency is not frantic activity like handling emergencies, but a series of more proactive activities, including the following:

  1. Behaving with urgency every day. Always demonstrate your own sense of urgency in meetings, interactions, memos and e-mail, and do so as visibly as possible to as many people as possible. You are the role model for everyone in your organization. If your tone or actions lack urgency, it percolates quickly to everyone, and you reap what you sow.
  2. Consistently communicating urgency. Urgency is a set of thoughts and feelings, as well as a compulsive determination to move and win now. Aim for the heart, not just the mind. Look for the element of every story that will compel employees into action. Make employees feel empowered, not stressed, to buy into the need for urgency.
  3. Creating action that is relentlessly aimed at winning. Make sure your actions are exceptionally alert, and focused on success. Show some progress each and every day, and constantly purge low value-added activities. Be quick to reward the winning actions of everyone on the team.
  4. Bringing the outside in. Be on the lookout for compelling data, people, video, websites and other important messages from outside the company. Strive to connect internal activity with external happenings and challenges. Highlight competitor wins in the marketplace, and continually challenge your own team to do better than competitors.
  5. Finding the opportunity from a crisis. Always be alert to see if crises can be a friend, not just an enemy, in order to destroy complacency. Think of crises as potential opportunities, and not only dreadful problems that automatically must be delegated to the damage control specialists. But don’t assume that crises inevitably will create the sense of urgency needed to perform better.
  6. Dealing with the urgency-killers. Remove or neutralize all the relentless urgency-killers, people who are skeptics or by their actions keep a group complacent or create destructive urgency. Examples are people who are always “too busy” or stretch every task delivery beyond reasonable limits.

A sense of urgency definitely includes impatience. Every successful entrepreneur I know is impatient with his own progress, and that of his team. Every member of the team should be impatient with the level of success so far. Yet they are not frantic, even in recovering from the latest emergency. They never confuse urgency with the level of effort expended.

A sense of urgency in business assumes that rapid change is required and normal. A sense of emergency is usually an effort to stop change, both good and bad. Every business should be embracing change, challenging their assumptions, and fighting inertia. Emergencies are just positive opportunities to learn.

Another challenge is to avoid a false sense of urgency. The enemy of urgency is a full appointment calendar, when everything becomes urgent. Now is the time to assess these attributes in your own startup, and in your own leadership style. Are you operating with the proper sense of urgency, or do you spend most of your time handling emergencies?

Written by Martin Zwilling

user Martin Zwilling Founder and CEO,
Startup Professionals

Martin is a veteran startup mentor, executive, blogger, author, tech professional, and angel investor. He is the Founder and CEO of Startup Professionals, a company that provides products and services to startup founders and small business owners.

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