Urgency is often a skill that people really value. But what does it actually mean in practice?
The term “urgency” is vague and can be defined in many different ways. Hiring managers regard it as an intangible quality – candidates either have it or they don’t. Technology leaders reference it when work is not happening as fast as they would like. The dictionary defines it as something so important it must be acted on immediately. These definitions are too disparate to be actionable, and yet we know urgency is critical to running a successful business.
Treating urgency like a mythical element in hiring or promoting is not effective for your business. Using a nondescript term in this way can be extremely frustrating for your engineers. They cannot develop a skill that leadership believes to be a quality you either have or you don’t. This approach also absolves management of their responsibilities when things are not moving fast enough, resulting in pep talks from leaders instead of real support.
We can define a sense of urgency in tech as the ability to identify and act on the most immediate and important tasks. To accomplish this, you must create a sustainable, psychologically safe environment and help your team develop three key skills.
How to better prioritize
You have probably seen a version of the image below before. There are four quadrants: high immediacy, high importance; high importance, low immediacy; low importance, high immediacy; low importance, low immediacy. This is a common rubric for determining the priority of tasks. High-importance and immediacy tasks are prioritized, whereas low-immediacy and importance tasks are abandoned.
Urgency doesn’t mean doing every task; it means declining every task that isn’t a high priority. If everything is a high priority, nothing is a high priority. No one can act urgently without clear prioritization that accounts for the team's capacity. Learning to say “no” often allows you to say “yes” to things that are high priority.
Figure 1. Importance vs. immediacy
But saying no is a problem your team might really struggle with. Often, it is the most helpful people who have a hard time with this part. This is not a character flaw, but it will lead to burnout if they don’t learn to manage their task load. People who are very good at their job will always see possible improvements; people who are great at their job know what is good enough. Help them see where good enough is and encourage them to feel satisfied with it.
If your team is burned out from fighting poor prioritization, you may need to start by taking more off their plates first and slowly handing it back. When you hand it back, it should be more organized and have clearer boundaries.
Engineering strategy and process documents, via Confluence or Notion, are a great way to empower your team to make decisions that align with leadership’s goals.
Your team will try to do their jobs to the best of their abilities, with or without guidance on prioritization. If they do not receive your direction, your team may try to figure it out themselves. If this is the case and they do not appear to be prioritizing properly, it is your responsibility to get them back on track.
Capacity is often overlooked when it comes to priorities. Often this is an issue that arises when the team isn’t big enough to take on all the top tasks at once. Make sure the pressing priorities do not exceed the bandwidth of your team.
Communication is especially important now that many of us are remote. Leaders can’t stop by desks to see how things are going as they once did. Now, teams need to communicate proactively with you and each other.
In tech, we are always making decisions with limited information and under a deadline. Having a scrum or agile process is especially important in time-constrained situations as they allow you to identify issues as early as possible, giving decision-makers time to make better strategic judgments. It is in everyone’s best interest to build good communication habits. But this practice starts with you – how you communicate priorities to the team and permit them to say no to things that are not urgent.
There are two other main benefits of good communication. The first is that you can trust and verify your team’s decisions, making adjustments as needed. This gives you space to lead without slowing them down. The second is maintaining good relationships with other people and departments even when you have to say no.
Communication is an integral skill here. Of course, you want to be helpful and you want to be good teammates, but the manner in which you communicate a “won’t fix” is really important to everyone’s quality of life at work. You should be able to provide a reason that the requester can understand.
Regularly ask stakeholders if they are getting what they need.
Once your team has learned prioritization frameworks and clear communication channels, it’s your turn to step out of the way and let them do it. Where you can, leave the decision in your engineers’ hands. Let them experience making decisions and dealing with the natural consequences.
Despite this, you cannot delegate every task and, ultimately, you are the one to make the irreversible, important decisions; when you find you're unable to delegate, provide as much context as possible to your team. I recommend a great talk by Spencer Norman on delegation.
Remember that your team will make mistakes, and their opinions may not always align with yours. This is an opportunity to recalibrate and build trust. Psychological safety only exists where two things are true: first, the employee needs to know they can take risks and make incorrect decisions without damaging their reputation in the company (or experiencing outsized repercussions), and second, they know they will be supported when they need help.
Psychological safety is critical in building this skill. Your team needs to know that it’s okay if they make mistakes. A few mistakes in favor of getting deliverables out of the door faster is a fair trade. You give feedback and approval where needed, but the rest of the cognitive load is spread around your team. Doing this will help your team feel empowered.
If your team is struggling to take action, evaluate the company culture. For instance, do you penalize employees for acting independently, even if that isn’t your leadership style? Are there other areas you could improve? You may need to have a deeper conversation with your team.
If your team is willing to take action but is doing so incorrectly, go back to the first skill: prioritization. If prioritization is clear and the team is still taking the wrong course, they may be slightly more junior and in need of your coaching.
Urgency is not a character trait or a pace, it is a set of skills, and the pace is determined by the environment created by leadership. Once leaders provide a space for associated skills to thrive, teams will be able to adopt urgency into their day-to-day lives with ease.
You must empower your team to prioritize, communicate, and take action. They need permission to make decisions and take risks without fear of being treated unfairly if they make a mistake. It is your job as the manager to set boundaries and checkpoints where your input or approval is needed. Delegate decision-making by sharing how you make decisions to reduce bottlenecks.
Create the space for your teams to hone their prioritization, communication, and action-taking skills. Ultimately, this will develop a more urgency-oriented mindset, improving overall efficiency. And next time you feel like giving a pep talk, ask yourself if your team needs help organizing and prioritizing, instead of motivation. Your engineers want to do good work. Help them do it.