Tuesday, 2 March 2010

When Urgent isn't Urgent at all

In January I was chatting with someone I know who asked if I knew anyone who could ‘operationalise a project’. What he meant was that his company needs help with business readiness and handover of what has been a very long project. Of course I reminded him who he was talking to and started asking questions about what was needed and the timeframe. Our conversation concluded with a mutual understanding that the need was urgent.

Now urgent to me means that the situation is important enough to require immediate attention; straight-away, no mucking about, decision made, let’s get on with it. Even the online Compact Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as:

urgent    adjective   1) requiring immediate action or attention   2) earnest and insistent

Pretty clear really isn't it? Apparently not...

Almost a month later and having touched base regularly we are both still waiting for a decision as to who will fill this apparently urgent need. Now to me this need can’t be urgent even if he’s adamant it is and the organisation cannot afford a delay.

However frustrating this is for both of us the delay is creating cost – directly and indirectly. Leaving aside the fact that I know this project is years (yes, years) overdue and understand the quality of the product expected to go live is substandard; the amount of time and money wasted in the last month is not something to be sniffed at and just adds to the waste that’s already occurred.

Let’s say for example the cost of each person involved in discussing this urgent need is £100 per hour and to date there have been 8 people that I know of involved in various discussions about involving an experienced external person who can, without any agenda, accelerate the pace of readiness then strengthen and deliver the handover process. If each of these 8 people has spent on average 12 hours or 1.5 days during the past month in ad hoc conversations, emails and phone calls, the cost of this alone is £9600. Now that may not seem like a lot of money to many in the corporate world and could be written off as business as usual, but remember I’m only allowing for the 8 people I know of. You still need to add on top the opportunity cost lost in that month. The longer the company takes to sort out their urgent need the more time is lost, which incidentally cannot be regained due to unmoveable deadlines, the less likely they are to gain any traction with business readiness and they continue to spend more on repeat workshops, other vendor / 3rd party involvement, and re-scoping requirements for what could well end up being a product that’s unfit for purpose and unsupportable by operations. It will add up to a very large number though I’d bet a packet of chocolate biscuits that no one is thinking about it like this.

Even though these 8 people are primarily internal and therefore paid for their time as part of their job, it is still incredibly inefficient, financially wasteful, frustrating and results in unnecessary pressure and stress for those expected to deliver regardless of decision makers not being able to make decisions, which brings us back to urgent.

It is very obvious that one person’s urgent is not the same as another’s. When you think you have an urgent requirement take a moment and do a reality check with those around you:
  • Urgent according to whom?
  • What other agendas support or refute this urgency?
  • Who’s actually interested in giving what you think is urgent immediate attention? What’s in it for them?
  • Perhaps more importantly, who’s not interested and how could that impact the situation?
  • What’s the cost from a delay or no action at all?
  • What are the savings or benefits from immediate action?
It seems that urgent has become another overused term and no longer reflects reality. Have we lost the ability to properly categorise and prioritise anything? Is operational urgency less important than strategic? Is nothing really urgent until customer retention diminishes, market share shrinks and profit margins are squeezed?

Perhaps it’s time to take another look at what urgent really means.


  1. Hi Deanne
    This is a timely piece, just a few weeks ago at the BPUG Congress there was a presentation that looked at the Total Cost of Ownership in projects and also detailed a cost calculator which is exactly as you described above. It was specifically looking at hidden costs in projects like how much does it cost to schedule project meetings (some that are totally unnecessary) by using the cost per person x the number of people there. Another example, creating a PID for a project which is not authorised e.g., 3 staff, 2 weeks.

    The main focus of the presentation was the lack of commercial awareness that many within corporates fail to demonstrate and I'm including project managers in that too.

    BTW, love the blog and have added it as a blogroll over at the Camel

    Cheers Lindsay

  2. Lindsay
    Thanks for your comment. Internal commercial awareness is better understood when cross-charging occurs because then the cost of what may be viewed as non-revenue earning staff and activities suddenly turns into reality. That's regardless of the cost associated with lost time.
    If you have a copy of that presentaion I'd be very interested to see it.

  3. Deanne,

    Sometimes I think we mistake personal agenda for urgency. I agree with Lindsay, this is a timely post. I particularly like your "urgency evaluator." When a powerful stakeholder says, "I want this now," does that make it urgent? Not always. When everything is "urgent," how do we determine what's urgent-er?


  4. Hi Ty
    Exactly! What are the motivators behind the use of the word? When we can't separate the personal agenda from the 'real oil' we're just headless chickens attempting to prioritise the squeaky wheel even if it's not the right one to be focusing on.
    Bring back proper word definition!!

  5. I love this piece. I can't tell you the number of times I've been told something was "urgent" and after my hurried response, that thing went immediately to a back-burner somewhere, only popping up again months later, "we need another response on this right away!"

    Ty made an *excellent* observation by saying "we mistake personal agenda for urgency".

    I remember many years ago a glitch in some software accidentally double paid trading counterparties. About $50 million was mistakenly sent out. We had to recover every penny before it posted to the GL that night and was permanently part of the accounting record.

    Now THAT was urgent. LOL

  6. Hey Geoff
    That's a very clear example of what urgent really is. Imagine doing the adjustments for that gremlin glitch.


  7. A great example of the fast-food, instant gratification and the "if I want it today, I'll ask for it tomorrow" mindset that is so pervasive today. I think people are equating/confusing the speed of communication with actual reaction time, which clearly can't keep up.

    This then gets tied to the conduit vs filter mentality, ie just pass the info along, don't look at it to see if it makes sense or is well-defined, and voila, urgency without accountability = paralysis.

    Admittedly, this is an easy path to take, and I have walked a few steps on it from time to time....Great recommendations Deanna, and excellent post!