The Urgent vs. The Important

“I get completely caught up in fire-fighting and can’t find the time to advance my longer-term priorities.”

This is a common managerial lament, the frustration you feel when the urgent crowds out the important. It’s particularly difficult for leaders making transitions into new roles – because there is so much to learn and do – but it afflicts most managers to some degree.

There are some strategies that can help.

The first is being clear and realistic about your longer-term priorities. If you haven’t clarified your A-item priorities, or if you are trying to take on too much, it’s hard to avoid getting sucked into the black hole. You can’t realistically hope to advance more than four or five significant strategic initiatives. So what are they? What are you going to try to do and what are you not going to try to do? Your bosses will evaluate you on whether or not you got a few key things accomplished, so it’s essential to be clear about what they are. Devote some time to clarifying and getting buy-in for them. Write them down. Put them up on the wall. Look at them every day and ask yourself, “How does what I’m doing help to advance these?”

A second strategy is to distinguish between unproductive and productive tactical effort. Just because you are devoting a lot of effort to solving specific problems or advancing particular short-term goals doesn’t mean you are caught up in “fire-fighting.” If you are proactively defining your agenda and focusing on specific issues to lay the foundation for accomplishing your strategic priorities, that’s good. If you are reacting to events and end up devoting significant time to issues unrelated to achieving your A-item priorities, that’s bad. Stay clear in your own mind about this distinction and use it to evaluate progress.

A third strategy is to delegate more effectively. Too many leaders encourage a sort of “learned helplessness” in their direct reports by letting them off-load problems that they should be taking on themselves. Particularly at risk are leaders who are uncomfortable with ambiguity and prefer action over reflection. Often they are good at crisis management. They enjoy racing to the rescue. This may have yielded success in low-level management positions, but it’s a recipe for trouble in more senior positions. Any time a subordinate brings you a problem, ask yourself, “Is this really something that I need to be involved with?” If not, tell them to come back with a strategy for dealing with issue: not a solution, just a strategy. If they can’t, then perhaps you need to think about building a stronger team.

A fourth strategy is to establish and rigorously defend your boundaries. Set aside some time, even if it’s just half an hour each day, when you turn off the Blackberry and let the calls go to voicemail. If you start getting drawn into something “urgent,” take a step back and ask yourself, “What is the best use of my time right now? How important is this today, how important will it be three months and six months down the road?” If do you have to focus on a fire-fighting task, set limits on how much time you will devote to it and stick to them. You have to vigorously protect your boundaries. No one else will.

Finally, think hard about whether you are part of the problem or part of the solution. Are you unnecessarily driving the people who work for you into fire-fighting mode? In many organizations, the real rules of the game are such that people are rewarded for solving problems and not for preventing them. Remember: If you reward fire-fighting, you’ll create an organization of pyromaniacs.

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