Project Management

False Urgency

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Have you ever worked on a project where when things went wrong, the sponsor was calm and measured, helping you create a map towards a resolution but backing off as required and letting you get on with the work?

That’s great.

The alternative is a much more destructive environment, where pressure from the levels above create a sense that everything has to be done now, even the tasks that don’t actually have to be done now. When things go wrong, that pressure intensifies. The team are pressed to deliver a fix to the exclusion of everything else, or to hit a milestone that has been made up by a senior leader and would never have been committed to if the full plan was understood at the time.

Where does false urgency come from?

False urgency comes from the pressure that is put on a team, group or individual to make a decision. It’s normally – in my experience – the result of some kind of failure.

Something goes wrong, and suddenly the big boss says he wants it fixed by 5pm. There’s no denying it’s a mistake that needs to be fixed, and fast, but the 5pm deadline is false urgency. Wouldn’t it be better to be fixed by 6pm and be right, rather than slap together an issue response plan and do a not-so-good job by 5pm?

The other situation I’ve found myself in is where a senior leader has committed in public – to a client, customer or during a Town Hall meeting – that something will be done by a certain date. And then we, as the project delivery team, have to find a way to meet that date. This false urgency is created by someone who doesn’t have the full information about what work is required and how much effort is likely to go into the project. But once a date is out there in public, it’s kind of hard for it to be extended without someone losing face.

How does false urgency affect people?

False urgency makes people think the situation is out of control, especially as the first deadline whooshes by. I’ve been on teams where we’ve been asked to do something asap, but it’s become clear that the solution – the correct solution – is going to take a bit longer. Suddenly, the fake deadline is swept out of the way. The fake urgency is gone. It feels like that was just a tool to get us to focus, which of course we did. And would have done anyway. We all know the problem needs resolving and that it’s top priority.

That sense of not being respected or allowed to find the solution, the pressure of having to do something just because someone says so, it all goes towards creating feelings of anxiety and anger. I know I get grumpy if I think something is important and someone then comes along and tells me it should be my most important task. It is already – but as a project manager, there’s often not much I can do beyond facilitating the process of issue resolution.

It's also tiring to be micromanaged and to be under the pressure of scrutiny.

The pressure of being in an urgent situation can make people do strange things. For example, looking busy. Busy is not the same as proactive or productive. When the bosses are circling because a client is being affected by a project issue, it’s important to look like you are gainfully employed, even if you can’t actually help the team to code the solution or run the fix or whatever.

There are lots of meetings, often to go over things that you’ve already gone over with other people. There are lots of reports. You end up defending behaviour and progress and explaining why things are taking as long as they are or involving the resources that they are.

How do we avoid this?

Given that false urgency can have such a negative impact on the team, I think it’s important to consider how it can be avoided. Sometimes – such as when your sponsor blurts out a delivery date in a client meeting and you haven’t even finished the estimating yet – you can’t in the moment. You can, however, mitigate the impact with open and honest communication and a bit of negotiation.

Be data-led, keep the communication channels open, be transparent with your sponsor and customer and avoid promising things before you have finished the planning stages. Have you ever been in a situation like this before? If you’re prepared to share, please tell us in the comments!

Posted on: February 02, 2023 08:00 AM | Permalink

Comments (2)

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" the first deadline whooshes by." If you're Douglas Adams, you actually like that sound.

With a large part of my experience in government, it is not unusual for projects to be tied to dates--legislation, dependencies, promises...

When I am bound to a date, I look at how much play I have with the scope. If I can deliver the most valuable parts by the arbitrary date, I am often given a reprieve over the remaining work.

When do you think this can get done? I'm often asked this question in meetings and it's easy to rush to give a promise without consulting the people with whom you share the task.

This is such a great article from which i've learnt a lot!

Thank you

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