Leaders of teams of all sizes often find it problematic to make their people operate with urgency. By “urgency,” I don’t mean stress, nervousness, or anxiety, but a general sense of striving to achieve their goals earlier rather than later. While it is commonly attributed to growth—more people means that things move slower—I’ve seen this take place in startups that were less than a year old. Are you feeling like some of your people are running with ankle weights? Does it seem like things easily get bogged down? You can make things better.
The problem with instilling urgency is that it is often used as a general concept with no actionable steps to it. That’s not because we don’t want to list them, but because it’s hard. Below, I listed prerequisites for instilling urgency. These are concepts that should be clear as part of your onboarding and culture-forming work (you do take time to do that, right?). Consider how good your team is for each, and pick the right area to start your focus on.
Form the path of least resistance
We know that people would rather do what’s easy when possible, and therefore you should use that knowledge to your advantage. It’s harder to have a sense of urgency when every decision and step require extra thought and bureaucracy. To do this, put in place clear guidelines whenever possible.
Some companies create higher-level guidelines in the form of values; others define loose defaults. Either case, you should be attentive to the sorts of micro-decisions that are being made regularly and create and communicate guidelines that make those require no thought (90% of the time). That way, you ensure that people keep moving forward and don’t have to stop and lose momentum.
Another requirement for making people work with less hesitation is to create an atmosphere that allows making decisions faster and pushing forward. It’s typical for teams to settle into a mindset where every aspect must be researched and analyzed thoroughly, even when the downside doesn’t justify this caution. When people treat every choice as if it might decide their fate, they tend to be too cautious and, therefore, slower.
Why does this happen? Often, it means that your culture doesn’t provide enough psychological safety and tolerance for mistakes. No one can operate quickly with a crippling fear of errors. It doesn’t necessarily require that the leadership team even view mistakes as a big deal; sometimes, such a misconception can manifest on its own. It’s your role to make your standards clear and walk the talk. After all, perfection is the enemy of success, so you shouldn’t be aiming for it. The guidelines mentioned earlier should make it easier to spot the exceptions that justify a more profound due-diligence process, but most others should be handled with less stress. Your people are not likely to be making life-critical decisions daily.
What do you think about meetings? Did you just cringe a bit? That’s usually a sign your company is suffering from an unhealthy meeting culture. Professionalism means demanding basic respect, especially when doing things that affect other people. Do not tolerate disrespect of others’ time. People should arrive on time to meetings, and after having prepared for them. You should hold fewer meetings, shorter, with smaller audiences.
This fundamental respect for treating appointments and sessions responsibly is essential and incredibly important for setting the stage for urgency. After all, one isn’t likely to gain much momentum with days full of ineffective meetings.
Running forward is a lot easier when one can point to a destination and aim for it. That’s not how many companies operate. Some set a goal but change it every couple of weeks. Others attempt superposition. When you’re “focusing” on five objectives for a single team, you’re not really focusing, are you? If everything’s a priority, nothing is.
To make it easier for team members to collaborate and make decisions quickly, their goals must be focused and steady.
Setting expectations properly can have magical effects. Sometimes, all it takes is to merely point out how you’d like things to happen, and you witness an immediate improvement (which should prompt the question, “why didn’t this happen earlier?”). One example is setting the team’s standard for different “SLAs” to enable effective collaboration.
Especially with the hybrid model many are working in nowadays, cooperation and teamwork have become noticeably harder. Making it clear how things should operate makes everything that much smoother. Do you have expected overlap hours where most people are expected to be available? Specific blocks that are kept meetings-free (or, if you managed to reduce them enough, specific blocks that allow meetings)? How long is it acceptable to “sit” on a pull request or document waiting for feedback? You shouldn’t put in place rigid SLAs and time them, but giving the team general guidance can help make things easier day-to-day.
Get to the point
Urgency is the opposite of beating around the bush. However, many teams find it extremely hard to cut to the chase. I wrote years ago about the disadvantages of teams that are too nice, and that problem seems to be getting worse. Wouldn’t it be amazing if people on the team could trigger a magic word and then speak what’s on their minds freely?
The best teams I see have incredibly high bandwidth communication and short feedback cycles. That means anyone who spots a major issue is expected to voice it—by pulling the figurative andon cord. Talk with your team about the sort of culture that you’re aiming for and the openness that it requires. I’ve introduced a safety word in some groups: a particular word that any team member can use in discussions, which means they want to share something candidly. Cynicism shouldn’t be used as part of this, but other than that, it’s not difficult to start using and can really help boost candor.
If you’re looking for more practical ways to make your team better, reach out or check out the London Leadership Leap this July: An exclusive masterclass for tech executives who want to propel themselves to newer heights, dramatically improve their performance, and start on the path to triple impact-per-engineer.
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