The compounding potency of unrelenting urgency

By Lex Solit

Imagine a corporate world where every employee attacked each project and each meeting with the urgency of Jack Bauer in 24.  While I prefer positive zeal to never-ending apocalypse-prevention, there is no denying that sustained urgency is a “top 5” source of competitive advantage.

Weightlifting is a great metaphor for business, in that once you work yourself into a certain condition, what was once an excruciating push can become “light work”.

Allow me to briefly expound on how I define urgency, crystallize the nature of its dividends, and lastly, share some thoughts on how to harness the power of urgency in a positive and engaging way in one’s organization.

What is urgency in a business context?

When people think of “urgency,” they often think of short sprints or fire drills. Every role or team has defined peaks when key outcomes are finalized or deliverables are handed up the chain. Urgency is all about turning on the after-burner when that big report is due for the big boss.

There are two flaws to this mindset. The first is that when you focus your idea of “peak performance” only on “peaks,” you miss optimizing impact on the 85% of non-peak times. Urgency, properly applied, is briskly jogging the whole marathon. The second is that “peak” periods are often cascaded down from more senior levels, meaning the “urgent spike” approach is a reactive response to an extrinsic demand. Urgency, properly applied, is like the joyously furious offense of Allen Iverson decimating the Lakers in Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals – it is an intrinsic desire of an individual team member to make each play count.  

Why is it so important?

The simple math of compounding returns. The results of an organization are a function of the aggregated actions of each employee in each second. Thinking in the speed/quality/cost framework, urgency, properly applied, can directly translate to increased speed with negligible (or limited) offsets. 

In my business (restaurants/retail), one of the biggest barriers to growth is the cycle time of expansion. The time it takes to find locations, negotiate with landlords, get permits, construct a place, and hire people necessitates an almost masochistic passion for the end product (which I fortunately - or unfortunately- have).

The most complex retail format I operate is the brewpub. Think 13K square feet, 250+ seats, a brewery on site. They are knarly but beautiful beasts.  The normal cycle time (end to end) for a project is 18 to 24 months. My team was able to open 4 brewpubs in 4 different countries in 10 months – doubling the speed of established operators while building a team from scratch. I’ll talk more about how we accomplished this in a future post, but just think about the value created by “getting in the game” one year sooner: the money, the learnings, the market presence, the people and infrastructure on which to build the next wave.   

How do you create/harness urgency?

As one of my recent hires astutely told me, “culture is just the way we do things”. Any leader in any organization has the opportunity and responsibility to shape the culture, like when Kanye dropped the Yeezy 2's.

1.)    Crank dat galvanizing mission

Few will stroll downhill to nowhere, many will sprint uphill for a pot of gold. To arm your troops with that “battery in the back”, I suggest framing the mission not just at the company level, but also at the team, project, and “quick sprint” level. There is glory to be had in the gargantuan and in the granular, and shortening cycle times between “accomplished missions” helps create the right dynamic. 

2.)    Grab the loose balls yourself

That leaders need to set the example is widely accepted for a reason. To create high-urgency teams, it is critical to not only expect speed from your teams, but to put pressure on yourself in a way that is visible to them. Set targets for yourself that are stretched. Commit to deadlines for specific items yourself and then show your team that you can consistently meet or exceed them.  

3.)    Coach for offense

Defense = “we have the monthly performance review, scramble and get the numbers and get me some pretty pictures!!”

Offense = “What do you believe you can achieve on this in the next 60 days? Are there any other ways you think we can drive XYZ metric? If you had to what you just said in the next 30 days, what would you need to change?    

In reality there will always be a combination of the two, but it’s all about the skew.

4.)    Remove the blockers, provide the enablers

Urgency is of no value until it turns into speed. Unblocking barriers to execution can sometimes mean streamlining decision-making processes or even re-thinking policies - where the cost exceeds the benefit. When your team sees you unblock barriers, it has both a practical and symbolic effect.

Enabling people in this context means more than autonomy and coaching – when it comes to moving really quickly, great leaders should collaborate upfront with team members to identify project-specific resources or tools that will reduce friction.  

Thanks for reading, and I welcome any thoughts or comments. Unfortunately, I must tend to some urgent business!