Sense of urgency is a managerial trick

Sense of urgency

You hear about a ‘sense of urgency’ often in the business world. Here’s a Wharton interview with the CFO of Price Waterhouse, for example; the title is about living with a sense of urgency. John Kotter of Harvard Business School wrote a book literally entitled A Sense of Urgency.

I’m of two minds on this book, but generally I think any discussions about a sense of urgency are straight-up managerial tricks. Let’s explore.

A sense of urgency and first-mover advantage

I’d assume most executives and senior decision-makers, when preaching a sense or urgency to their lieutenants on any topic or project, will probably talk in some form or fashion about the first-mover advantage. Essentially, they’re telling their people “We gotta get there first. We gotta capture that market share.” This is logical, because business tends to deify war, and in war planning, “getting there first” makes a lot of sense. The problem is, it’s not really true in business planning.

Here’s a recent Adam Grant TED Talk that’s been making some rounds:

He talks about “surprising habits of original thinkers,” which feels like a Fast Company click-bait headline — but it’s a good talk. One of the things he mentions near the end is that first-mover advantage is actually a farce; oftentimes the third or fourth company into a market wins it, which is logical. That fourth company in can iterate on the first three and correct their mistakes. See also: most Apple products tend to be better in later versions, at least IMHO.

As The Washington Post pointed out in 2012, Google is a great example of the first-mover advantage being a myth. There were dozens of search engines before Google popped big. Remember DogPile? Now Google owns search. But they weren’t the first. Facebook wasn’t either. Remember Friendster? MySpace? Etc, etc.

So if the sense of urgency concept is tied back to the first-mover advantage concept, well, then the sense of urgency concept is flawed.

A sense of urgency and corporate mission

Another way executives try to push a sense of urgency around projects is by referencing the corporate mission. It’s something along the lines of: “Dave, we’ve got to have a sense of urgency on this one. Our mission is to change the world through widgets, as you know.”

If Dave is a target-hitter, Dave will buy that hook, line, and sinker. He’ll get right after it and the sense of urgency created will make everyone who works under Dave not see their families for six weeks, give or take — and none of them will receive a bonus or raise greater than 2.7% at the next annual review process. It’s a fun cycle.

Here’s where all this falls apart, though. Most companies attempt to set a mission statement or corporate purpose or whatever, but in reality it’s typically just a list of values that the executives remember to insert into speeches from time to time. When done this way, it means nothing — and that’s not me grousing, that’s held up by research. (Google “Netflix culture document,” and/or just click that link above. Do so with a sense of urgency, please.)

This all should make sense to you, though: the actual function of a company isn’t to provide purpose. It’s to pay people in exchange for services rendered (internal) and create a product or service that betters people’s lives (external). There’s nothing in any legal documents whereby companies are established that says “You need to create purpose for between 2 and 20,000 people over the next few decades.” Nope. You need to make money and please customers, hopefully in the reverse order.


When companies try to define purpose, then, what they’re typically doing is launching into a consultant-driven scam whereby they assume “If we focus on purpose and small some perks, we can pay these people less.” That’s where the rubber meets the road on employee engagement. Most executives and senior decision-makers don’t care about it, because to them people are interchangeable. They themselves will stay in their top roles, and if the people underneath them change out, so be it. Are we making quarters? Are we hitting targets? Are our bonuses fat? OK, OK, OK. Good, good, and good! Employee engagement matters in this way: can you swap out “more salary” for “some other cheaper thing” and keep the bottom line healthy, wealthy, and wise? OK, let’s do it!

You know that “corporate mission” as a rationale for anything — i.e. a sense of urgency on your next deliverable — is a farce, because legitimate research from MIT’s Sloan School of Management has shown that most organizations have absolutely no idea what their mission or priority is even 1 level below the CEO. If no one really understands what the mission, purpose, or values are …then how can anyone claim a new project needs a sense of urgency as a result of those things?

True story: had a job once where a higher-up, who probably made 8x what I did, asked me a few times if I knew what the corporate mission statement was. (Not a joke.) He said he had searched the website, some internal documents, etc. and couldn’t find it. Eventually, he gave up and kicked the project to a few lessers. He probably had a sense of urgency around some other things. But that’s the whole deal:  you can make a ton of money within a company, enough to lead a very good life for yourself, and not have a clue what the mission of the company is. It happens all the time.

As a result, let’s never tie “the corporate mission” to a sense of urgency in terms of project planning.

The real dirty little secret of a sense of urgency

Work is essentially a complex game of Hot Potato where you take on projects you understand and think you can excel at, and quickly throw projects that scare you onto the plates of other people by claiming how busy you are.

Again, back by research — the primary fear of most people at jobs, and especially senior leaders, is incompetence.

That obviously has massive repercussions for decision-making: if everyone fears being incompetent, then everyone is going to make safer decisions, which would seem to have some ties back to “less innovation.”

But it also has huge ties to this sense of urgency culture business loves to embrace. Follow this bouncing ball:

  • Manager A (higher-up) gives a project to Manager B (middle) and needs it by next Thursday
  • Manager B feels overwhelmed with his/her day-to-day tasks and kicks it to Employee C (rank-and-file)
  • Manager B kicks this project to Employee C virtually devoid of context, as managers tend to do
  • Employee C is running around like a chicken without a head trying to figure out what this project is and where to start
  • Employee C probably isn’t super-engaged in their job anyway and has other day-to-day stuff to do, so the project slides a bit
  • (After all, no context = no priority set, so how does Employee C know how much this matters?)
  • After a few days, Manager A comes to Manager B and wants to know about the project
  • Manager B hasn’t thought about since he/she kicked it down the chain
  • “I’m on it, boss! Thursday!”
  • Manager B now goes to Employee C and tears them a new one about a “sense of urgency” on this project

You see how fucking insane this chain is?

Manager A barely cared — he/she’s got formal power, so he/she kicked it off his/her plate.

Manager B barely cared — he/she didn’t know how to do it and felt busy with other stuff, so he/she got rid of it.

Employee C, who by the way also makes the least money in this equation but is essentially doing the actual work, barely cared either — he/she wasn’t sure it was even a priority, just some no-context project coming over the fence.

So you got three people who barely care, and yet … the cornerstone concept of each interaction is how everyone needs to have a sense of urgency on this one.


A sense of urgency and the boy who cried wolf

If every project from your manager is top priority, must-be-done-now, sense of urgency stuff … that eventually becomes boy who cried wolf. And then when a project is actually important and you ignore it because it’s always sense of urgency stuff, everyone’s screwed. This happens way more than we admit, in large part because most managers replace any conversations about failure with (a) screaming or (b) a cheapened success metric.

How do we get better about a sense of urgency, then?

It comes from alignment within your organization — alignment of strategy and execution, yes, but also alignment of these ideas:

  • Company goals
  • KPIs, or how you know you’re hitting goals
  • Day-to-day tasks
  • Individual goals

Unless you align those four things around some shared sense of priority and goals vs. tasks, everything will take on this ‘sense of urgency,’ and everyone is running around like a chicken without a head worshiping at The Temple of Busy. Those are always fun places to work. Those places tend to create the 12 worst types of managers in business, which leads to turnover … which leads to new people being rushed in (headcount, baby!) and being told every project needs to be completed with a sense of urgency.

Honestly … what happened to doing quality work, instead of rushing to hit quantity work targets?

Ted Bauer


  1. It’s one thing to be a heretic, Ted, but on this one I’m concerned that you are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I spent an entire career with a sense or urgency mindset, and I expected the same of my team when applied to ‘doing right things’. Worked like a charm.

    • That’s good for you. But in terms of managers I’ve observed and how they — not you — approach that issue? They’re hair on fire and causing more harm than good. Maybe this explains your success?

    • If it worked for you at your organization, wonderful and congratulations on your success. As a management philosophy writ large, however, it’s tremendously fraught. Dock Ellis once pitched a no-hitter on LSD. Does that mean all Major League Baseball pitchers should drop acid before a game?

      Let’s be careful to not confuse a specific incident with general best practices. Having a strong drive to provide the best services/product you can is important, and inspiring your employees to strive to become the best version of themselves at work is crucial.

      Treating every business project that comes your way like it’s a five alarm fire in a hospital isn’t a great idea, unless you think high staff turnover sounds good (sadly, I’ve worked for and observed companies that believe this).

  2. I think we can both agree that the key factor is leadership. I also get the sense that the companies you are talking about operate with administrative (likely bureaucratic) cultures rather than entrepreneurial ones. When smaller companies face deep-pocketed, slow-moving giants, moving fast becomes the competitive advantage.

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