If you’ve ever worked with someone who lacked a sense of urgency, you probably spotted it pretty quickly: Work languished, reminders were needed to push things forward, and the person generally didn’t seem terribly invested in how quickly things happened or whether they happened at all.
As destructive as that can be when it’s one person, it’s far more damaging when it’s a whole team. If the description above comes uncomfortably close to describing how your team operates, it’s time to do some thinking about how to inject more of a sense of urgency into your team culture. Of course, to be clear, “sense of urgency” shouldn’t mean panic or chaos, but rather that people are engaged and driving work forward with a sense that the speed of execution matters.
Here’s how you can get more of a sense of urgency on your team.
Model an appropriate sense of urgency yourself. This doesn’t mean that you should be racing around, yelling at people, or injecting anxiety into every planning meeting. It means showing through your actions that you care about driving toward results. For example, don’t load yourself or others down with low-impact work, spot and remove obstacles to work, keep meetings short and to the point (and insist on an agenda!), be responsive when people need your input, be rigorous about deadlines, don’t let projects just “drop,” and follow up when something isn’t happening in an appropriate amount of time.
Set expectations for projects up-front. All too often, managers get frustrated because a piece of work isn’t moving along as quickly as it should be, when they haven’t actually made their expectations explicit. Don’t hide the ball by making your staff guess what kind of timeline will seem on-track to you versus too leisurely; tell them. At the start of a project, talk through prioritization and any interim deadlines, and share whatever is in your head about timing – which could be anything from “I want to share a preliminary plan in the executive team meeting next week, so can you get me a draft in two days?” to “we have some time on this, but I’d like it finished by the end of the month.”
Set expectations more broadly, too. Talk explicitly with team members about how you want them to approach their work in general. For example, you might explain that a key to success on your team is having a bias toward getting things done and finding solutions when obstacles crop up. You could also explain that you don’t want team members to simply execute a series of activities that you assign them, but rather that they should see themselves as truly responsible for the success of their realms and for figuring out how to keep work moving forward.
Make sure each project has a single owner who is charged with keeping that project moving. When projects don’t have clear owners, they’re far more likely to languish. You might think that increasing the number of people responsible for the overall success of a project would increase its chances of success, but generally what happens is that the overall responsibility gets diffused and no one feels truly responsible for ensuring results.
Explain the reason behind deadlines. People are much more likely to work with urgency when they understand the need for it. “The client goes on vacation after Friday so if we don’t get her sign-off now, we’ll have to wait two more weeks” is a lot more compelling than “get this done by Thursday.”
Make a point of not creating a sense of urgency when things aren’t truly high priority. If everything is treated as urgent, then over time your team is likely to operate as if nothing is. You’re going to get much better results from people if you show that you apply some judgment (and allow them to apply judgment too) about what truly does require fast action and what doesn’t. Also, when people work in an environment where everything must happen now, they eventually burn out. So make sure that you’re careful to note when things aren’t rushes and can wait until it’s convenient.