by Patty Azzarello

Putting strategy into action by scheduling urgency

Mar 09, 2017
IT Leadership

By charting a clear, concrete course through the long and difficult "middle," of a new strategy or initiative, you'll avoid an early sense of complacency and ensure that momentum is sustained throughout the transformation.

clock and calendar montage
Credit: Thinkstock

Executives tell me all the time: “I want to see more urgency.” 

When I ask them, “What would that look like?” I don’t usually get a very clear answer.

Sometimes it’s that they want to see more accountability from their team, or they want to see more energy. Or they say they are not seeing enough momentum.

Sometimes I think leaders would be more satisfied to just see everyone running around in a panic because that would look more like urgency and make them feel better.

What creates urgency?

Urgency is natural outcome of crisis or danger. But in business, we kind of like it when there is no crisis or danger.

But since urgency is not a natural outcome of a calm and well managed initiative, how can you create the urgency you want to see without using fear?

It’s actually very simple to create urgency. If you want more urgency, schedule it.

Time is the enemy of urgency

The urgency in a long-term initiative suffers from what feels like an abundance of time at the beginning.

Let’s just take a simple example and say that your goal is to roll a new system out to field offices.

So you have defined your end goal to be that 100 percent of field offices in North America will be using the new system in one year.

People leave the kick-off meeting nodding their heads and thinking, “Yeah, that’s important, but we have a year to get it done, so I don’t need to worry about it for a while.”

When you have a task that will take a year, on any Monday early in the process, you kind of still have a year. If you don’t start it for a month, you still have most of the year. But this thinking can repeat over and over again. Suddenly you are 10 months in and still have 12 months of work left to do!

So what happens at the beginning is that everyone nods their heads and goes back to work. Nothing changes. It feels like you’ve got plenty of time. There is no urgency.

The hazard of ‘the middle’

You need to realize that this end goal tells you nothing about what you will do during the course of the year to achieve it. I refer to this part of a strategy or transformation as “the middle.”

Organizations invest huge amounts of time, energy and money in defining a strategy, and they are excited about the goals at the end, but then there is this long expanse of time in the middle which is often undefined and uncharted – and is literally where everything needs to get done!

The middle is where initiatives lose momentum and where that sense of urgency everyone felt at the beginning is often lost.

The way to combat this is to specifically define things that need to be done throughout the middle.

Charting the course through the middle

So let’s take our example and start defining the middle.

Work backwards from the goal. Define what you will see at intermediate points throughout the middle.

For example for that outcome to be true in a year, what would need to be true nine months out?

9 months out: The system has been installed at 100 percent of field offices, and user training and implementation of support plans have been scheduled to occur over the next two months.

For that to be true 9 months out, what will need to be true 6 months out?

6 months out: The system has been built, tested internally and rolled out to 10 beta sites. User training and support plans will be designed with beta test input.

For that to be true 6 months out, what will need to be true 3 months out?

3 months out: System design has been completed. Beta sites have signed up and committed resources. Implementation will be done in 2 more months.

If that were true 3 months out, that means …

1 month out: A user advisory board has been formed and inputs have been taken. Requirements have been finalized. The project plan has been resourced. Work can begin.

By working backwards to define the timeline of concrete work elements up front, you leave the meeting with checkpoints already defined for 1,3,6 and 9 months out.

People can’t simply just go back to work and feel like they have a year to make it come true. They need to leave the meeting with specific actions that need to start as soon as next week!

Do you see urgency yet?

Once you have a timeline on which you can all see the specific outcomes you need to achieve and work that you will do throughout the middle, then you can ask yourself, “Is this pace fast enough?”

If it is, great, if not, tighten up the actions you have placed on the on time line to occur at a faster pace.

If you can get your team to buy in to the shorter timeline, and you stay focused on achieving each milestone, you will have created actual urgency—by scheduling it.

Putting strategy into action

This is the process I use over and over again with clients in my strategy into action program. We go from vaguely talking about urgency, to aligning on a timeline that regulates the right amount of urgency by being clear and actionable. It works way better than simply demanding to see more urgency!