“I’m constantly putting out fires.” If that’s a phrase you’ve said or heard, you’re not alone.
Research from ideas42, a behavioral science nonprofit, teaches us it’s practically impossible for people to break out of their “busyness tunnel” unless there are structural changes within an organization.
That’s why we’re building a work culture focused on what we call Productive Urgency.
After a recent team alignment session, I thought about the importance of building a culture of productive urgency and getting things done in any business—whether you’re a growing startup or established enterprise.
Here’s how we do it at Relocalize and how you can adopt a similar model.
Get Things Done with a Culture of Productive Urgency in 2022
- What is a “sense of urgency”?
- What we mean by Productive Urgency
- The Think-Act-Ship mental model (that builds a culture of getting things done)
- How to avoid anxiety-driven work
- 5 key behaviors of Productive Urgency
- How to lead with Productive Urgency
What is a “sense of urgency”?
Creating a sense of urgency became a popular mantra in the 2000s. Organizations struggled with the changes wrought by the internet and the need to keep pace with innovation coming out of Silicon Valley.
A decade later, the language fell out of favor as it became sloganized management-speak (much the way agile is descending into meaninglessness today).
But management-speak doesn’t make it wrong. Urgency still matters. Anyone who’s worked in a high-performing organization will tell you it’s an essential part of culture—and not all urgency is created equal.
So what is a sense of urgency? The phrase means the feeling that tasks are pressing and need to be completed as soon as possible.
People who have a strong sense of urgency realize that time is of the essence and use it efficiently to complete their work quickly. The key question, of course, is which tasks should be treated as urgent.
As the saying goes, when everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority.
“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.” —Leonardo Da Vinci
What we mean by Productive Urgency
At Relocalize, we’re building a culture of “Productive Urgency”. We define this as a culture that executes relentlessly and quickly, using these five key principles::
- Purpose: Focus on the “why” of work to give purpose
- Prioritize: Focus the “doing” on what matters (also define what we’re not doing)
- Plan: Use aggressive yet reasonable time-limited sprints
- Initiative: Reward and promote initiative
- Ownership: Own the outcome, not the task. Act like you own the business.
By focusing on doing and culture, Productive Urgency naturally follows. It also creates organizational antibodies—seeking out and destroying momentum-killing complacency, false urgency, busy work, lack of purpose, and lack of direction.
Having a sense of productive urgency at Relocalize pays dividends everyday. We see it in deadlines achieved, satisfied partners, engaged investors, and organizational momentum.
Ultimately, this momentum is what will help Relocalize create the positive change in the world we aspire to make. And if you’ve read this far, I’m confident you aspire to make positive change too
Let’s take a look at how to do it with a simple mental model.
The Think-Act-Ship mental model (that builds a culture of getting things done)
Think-Act-Ship (and Learn+Repeat) is our Relocalize model for Productive Urgency. Here’s what each part means:
Understand the “why” and align with priorities and planning.
Don’t be afraid to take action and get started. This is where urgency kicks in.
Produce something useful—ready to be shared with others and create a new asset for the company.
Share what you create, use it, and engage with others to get feedback—so the task owner and organization get smarter.
Create momentum by repeating the cycle for a new task (or iterate and improve existing work). This is how you achieve more velocity, not just speed.
While creating momentum is critical, faster isn’t always better.
Here’s what I mean...
How to avoid anxiety-driven work
While a sense of urgency often leads to getting stuff done faster and better, it’s important to guard against false urgency.
“False urgency is rooted in anger and anxiety…This anger creates conflict, battles and a lot of meetings. It is often created by pressure from above, with actions that are not aimed at the root cause or real solutions.” —Dr. John Kotter
People often think they’re acting with urgency when they’re actually acting with anxiety. This type of false urgency leads to unproductive activity—or the “busyness tunnel.” This may create the illusion of progress, but it is almost certain to lead to unnecessary stress and “unforced errors.”
In an interview with Emerald Publishing, Dr. John Kotter—author of A Sense of Urgency—explained this perfectly, “A false sense of urgency is a terrible, terrible problem. A false sense of urgency is an anxiety driven, frenetic behaviour of running around in circles, your tongue dragging after a certain point, and becoming stressed out. You have meeting after meeting, taskforce after taskforce, but it’s activity not productivity. It is so insidious and dangerous.”
For leaders, it is extremely important to communicate speed calmly and to avoid management by emergency. When urgency becomes panic, your team will become inefficient and unmotivated. Eventually, your best people will start looking for new jobs.
5 Key Behaviors of Productive Urgency
When you’re living Productive Urgency, you’re getting the right things done—faster and better over time.
Every member of your team will accomplish something important each day. Driven not by fear, but a deep determination and sense of purpose.
Of course projects will go off the rails, mistakes will be made, and initiatives will fail—but productive urgency means getting back on schedule quickly and learning from mistakes.
There are 5 behaviors and mindsets that seem simple but can drive real change. We focus on these at Relocalize.
1. Ship something important every day.
When you get stuff done every day, you create forward momentum, avoid collecting "almost shipped" tasks and develop an action-oriented mindset. It doesn’t always have to be perfect, but must be good enough to deliver real value.
2. Schedule tasks and projects as soon as they’re launched.
We never say, “Let’s meet in a couple weeks to discuss progress.” Be more specific and action-oriented, by saying “Let’s look at our calendars and see if February 15th at 11:00 am works to meet again to discuss progress on x, y and z”.
3. Say “no” a lot.
One cannot be afraid to focus (including changing priorities when required) and take decisive clear action on what not to do. Practically, getting stuff done and creating momentum is as much about the things you are not going to do, as the things that you decide to prioritize.
4. Set mini-deadlines instead of one big deadline.
And make these deadlines tight because studies have proved tighter deadlines lead to higher completion rates, shorter completion times, and less money spent on the task at hand. It also creates and sustains momentum.
“Short deadlines on urgent tasks elicit attention. Those tasked with the assignment are more likely to complete it, less likely to procrastinate on it, and less likely to spend superfluous money on it than if they were given the same task with a less-urgent deadline.” —Meng Zhu, Harvard Business Review
5. Always think like an underdog.
This is easy for us, since we are a small startup team taking on three geographical monopolists in a $6B industry. But it might not be easy for you, if your employer is a large corporation.
The reason for thinking like an underdog is simple. One can only overcome a superior force by having a highly effective team that can collectively be smarter, faster, more focused, and more determined than one’s adversary.
This creates urgency.
Bill Gates talked about the underdog mindset in his book, The Road Ahead.
He said a big part of Microsoft’s success was that “employees always thought of themselves on the losing side".
How to Lead With Productive Urgency
How do you lead with productive urgency? You keep calm and carry on. It’s critical for leaders to keep calm and model Productive Urgency.
Acting with urgency doesn’t mean shouting, threatening, or panicking. People don't deliver good results in an emergency.
Leaders must model the behaviors by publicly living urgency—prioritizing, planning, and acting decisively.
This can be especially difficult for overachievers, who make up a disproportionate number of high achievers in high velocity businesses. You can read more about them here.
If you’ve made this far, thanks for being here. Productive Urgency is the foundation of the culture we’re building at Relocalize.
The mental model (Think-Act-Ship-Learn-Repeat) and five key behaviors can help you build a healthy productivity culture too.
A quick note about overachievers: I personally relate to this challenge. Our model and key behaviors help me maintain balance while avoiding derailing the team’s momentum.
If you relate as an anxious overachiever, I encourage you to explore how it impacts your team’s momentum—and your health.
Want to learn more about our team culture and mission at Relocalize? Follow me on LinkedIn and say hello.