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A sense of urgency

John Kotter stresses the importance of creating a sense of emergency. Working with the 7 habits program, this might seem like a really bad idea.

Urgency according to 7 habits

The 7 habits program divides tasks into four types:

I Urgent and Important – the crisis, stuff which is important and must be done “now”

II Not urgent but important – the strategic work, important tasks which must not be done at once, but if not taken care of is in the risk of becoming urgent.

III Urgent but not important – tasks which you don’t really see the point with but is urgent. This is mostly tasks which others want you to do.

IV Not important and Not urgent – these are the tasks which brings no value and which might bring a sense of wasting your time and guilt for not making use of your time.

The 7 habits program wants you to spend more time in sector II, since this avoids the I:s and creates a productive work profile. If you spend too much time in I, you will probably feel wasted and the rest of the time is spent in sector IV, since you don’t have the energy for anything else.

Urgency according to Kotter

When people think something is important, they can work harder and be more productive. By creating a sense of urgency, people uses crisis as potential opportunities. This can be a positive force in companies, clarifying what the objectives are and what they are not.

How to use a feeling of urgency

Most of us feel like we have too little time and too much to do. So, what should we prioritize?

it is very easy feel productive when you’re doing sector I tasks. You might feel like a hero, saving the day. You can avoid prioritizing since THIS is so important. But often, it’s not that productive. Too many sector I tasks are in sector II since you failed to complete them before they became urgent. This is also one of the points Kotter makes – you shouldn’t wait for the crisis to happen. You should sit, passively and just hope that things turn around. In other words, prioritize sector II tasks.

If you spend too much time in sector I, you can start thinking that sector III tasks are sector I tasks. You are so used to working with those hectic tasks that you fail to recognize what is important and what is not. You see something urgent and without really thinking, you take for granted that since it’s urgent, it is probably important too.

I’m currently working on an important project. It’s very important that we deliver on time and with the right content. And I want the people involved to feel a sense of urgency. This doesn’t mean that all the requirements are urgent or even important. These prioritized must be fully understood by the developers. By making them feel a sense of emergency, I also hope they can use this feeling to become more creative. This does not mean cutting corners and pushing defective code. It means that they can come up with new brilliant ideas and also discuss when they think that something is very time consuming so we can decide if it should be cut or not.

But the feeling must be shared with others. If other coworkers does not feel the urgency, they can easily distract my team with those sector III and sector IV tasks. It is so easy to see your own deadlines and tasks as important, but how important are they compared to other stuff? Context switching is one of the best ways to ruin a project. Once, I had a developer assigned 5 hours a week on a project. I declined. The context switching for this person would not make him productive and the others would spend too much time updating him every week. And how could he ever get that feeling of urgency if he had three projects at the same time?

My own conclusions are:

– Don’t mistake Kotter’s definition of urgency with the 7 habits definition

– Make Sector II tasks feel urgent! TDD, BDD, and what ever strategic software development techniques you wish to use must feel urgent, otherwise they will not be prioritized and then developers can start to think that the quality isn’t that urgent

– It’s hard to get a sense of urgency if you context switch too often

– You cannot get a sense of urgency if you’re alone with this feeling

– Developers will never feel that sense of urgency if they don’t feel and understand the objective. Excluding them from these discussions is contra productive.

Any other thoughts?

Categories: 7 habits, Leadership Tags: ,
  1. 2009/10/11 at 10:20 pm

    I think mixing the context of Kotter (Org Change) and Covey (7 Habits) is a mistake. They apply at very different levels, Organizational vs Personal. But then I think you know that, so why try to mix them up? Leave them within the context they were design for.

    Situational Leadership – don’t miss use the context.

    • Anna Forss
      2009/10/12 at 5:31 am

      The problem for me is that I’m by a chance reading Kotter and 7 habits at the same time and they use the word urgent. As you mention, they are on a different level, and my point is that you can combine Kotter’s Urgency without living in the 7 habits sector I behavior. A sense of urgency in your heart is not the same thing as trying to do all tasks which are percieved as urgent.

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