Have you ever been asked to drop everything to complete a seemingly urgent task, and then found that the task wasn’t so urgent after all?
Not long ago, one of our clients gave us three days to put together a proposal to help with a very large and complex reorganization. Although we had been talking about the possibility of working on this project for months, the client suddenly felt that it was time to get started. We didn’t want to miss the opportunity, so we put in some late nights and did what was needed to craft a reasonably good document. And then we waited.
Two weeks later, the client sent a note saying that she hadn’t yet had time to read the proposal but would get to it soon. And in the meantime, she was still trying to secure agreement on the reorganization with her boss and other key corporate function heads.
Obviously, something doesn’t add up with this picture. Why did the client give us only three days and convey such a sense of urgency if she wasn’t really ready to move forward? Was she being dishonest or was she deluding herself about the situation – or was something else going on?
Having seen many variations on this “hurry up and wait” dynamic over the past few years let me suggest a possible explanation. I’ll also offer some ideas about what to do if you are falling into this trap, whether it’s as the perpetrator or the victim.
The starting point for understanding this issue is the dramatic acceleration of today’s business culture. Because we live in a world of continual, real-time communication from anywhere in the world, we’ve gotten used to assuming that everything happens instantaneously. As such, it’s almost unthinkable for managers today to give an assignment (whether to a consultant or subordinate) and say, “take your time” or “think about what it will take and let me know when you can get to it.” Instead, the almost unconscious default position is to push for rapid action.
Intersecting with this drive for speed is the reality that many organizations have slimmed down over the last few years. But while they have reduced costs and taken out layers of managers and staff, they often haven’t eliminated the work that those people were doing. So the surviving managers are expected to do more and more, and do it faster and faster.
The result of trying to drive more work through fewer people, and at greater speed, is a jamming of the queue. There is simply no way to get everything done in the accelerated time frames that many managers expect. So while their intentions are to move quickly on things, the reality is that you can only force so much work through the eye of the needle.
The problem is that some tasks or assignments really do need to be carried out quickly. But unless they are treated differently, they get caught up in the same bottleneck with everything else. It’s like the common phenomenon that happens in hospital laboratories: Doctors want test results from their patients to be done right away, so they label them as “stat” (which means “immediate”). When the lab gets too many stat requests however, everything is treated the same, which means that nothing is done immediately.
In our case, the manager really did want to move quickly with the reorganization. But then she was inundated with other tasks, requests, meetings, and priorities and had trouble finding the time to read our proposal. She also thought that she could get her boss and other executives aligned on the reorganization, but couldn’t find the time to get them all together, or even meet with many of them one-on-one. So while she genuinely intended rapid action, she just couldn’t pull it off.
Obviously there is no easy solution for dealing with “hurry up and wait” syndrome. But if you feel that this dynamic is affecting your team’s work, here are two suggestions:
First, put a premium on eliminating unnecessary or low value work. Are there repetitive activities that your team is doing that don’t make a difference, or could be done less often or with less effort? One overloaded manager, for example, got permission from her boss to report her team’s activities on a monthly, instead of weekly, basis. That change gave her team more bandwidth to handle urgent projects.
Second, inject more discipline into the prioritization of projects and tasks. Work with your team to identify those few things (and not more than a few) that really do need to be done with speed. And when a new request comes in, make explicit decisions about where it fits in the list of priorities – and if necessary, challenge the assumption that it needs to be done right away.
Given the desire for speed that permeates today’s business culture, we’ll all probably experience hurry up and wait syndrome at one time or another. If we can do a better job of prioritizing, however, we might face it less often.
Ron Ashkenas' blog post on Harvard Business Review. Join the discussion.