Urgent vs. important
When a company is growing fast and is relatively lean, it is incredibly common to have a bunch of unexpected problems arise on a daily basis. Founders and leaders are often balancing building for the medium- and long-term with the inevitable random cropping-up of customer needs, outages, employee-related issues, moves by the competition, and more. In trying to execute this balancing act, leaders often ask their teams to drop work they’re currently doing in the interest of doing other work that they deem to now be more important. When this happens too frequently, the result can be whiplash for employees, where they’re changing focus so frequently that they may feel like they’re not accomplishing anything at all. On the other hand, leaders who don’t change priorities at all risk not dealing with problems that really do need to be solved.
The line between those two extremes of staying the course and constantly shifting priorities is blurry at best, and in my experience there is not one definite right answer for toeing that line. But I do believe that there is a lens through which we can look at some of these tradeoffs between problems already being worked on and problems that could be worked on. It is the labeling of these problems as “urgent” or “important”.
An urgent problem arising is just a day in the life of an early-stage startup. In my early days at Uber on the Baltimore team, we dedicated a lot of effort to preparing for Preakness, a horse race that was the single largest event of the year (by a large margin) in terms of demand for rides to and from a single location. We spent many weeks leading up to the event onboarding more drivers, messaging the drivers on the platform about the expected demand, offering incentives to ensure there were enough of them available at peak times, and messaging riders to help them understand where to go after the event to get a ride.
On the day of the race, dropoffs at the race course happened without issue. The real test of whether our preparatory efforts had been successful, though, would be when the race ended and everyone needed to get picked up at once. As the race finished, the team on the ground started pointing drivers towards the spot where pickups would occur, and we prepared for an onslaught of ride requests. Almost at the exact moment that people started streaming in droves out of the course, as if it had been planned for optimal comedic timing, our app went down. Our market’s biggest event of the entire year, and not a single person could order a ride. I would most assuredly have described this problem as urgent.
I once was working with another company in the gig economy space, and as they were approaching the end of the quarter they determined that, despite their best efforts, they were going to miss their targets for supply on the platform by 10%. The leader of the team was getting concerned messages from the CEO about how far behind the team was on its goal, and the team leader went to the team to let them know that the CEO was concerned, and to ask what could be done to increase supply so that they hit their goal. Another situation that, at least on its surface, certainly seemed urgent.
This team was in the process of building out a number of initiatives that would significantly improve long-term platform supply, but the team leader asked them to drop those projects in the interest of increasing supply now. Because there was so little time before the end of the quarter, they needed to do something drastic. They decided to ask the CEO for approval to spend $3 million to significantly increase the signup bonus incentive for new supply. The CEO gave their approval and, with the huge incentive in place, the supply metric quickly got back on track towards the goal.
I’ll admit that both of the situations I described above were urgent. In one case, customers were unable to use the company’s product at a moment of extremely high need. In the other, goals that were agreed on as important to the company’s success were at risk of not being met. An organization that is constantly refocusing its resources onto the most urgent problems would prioritize both of these things. In one case, that would be the right decision. But in the other, I believe it wouldn’t. And that is not because one of these problems was more urgent than the other. It is because only one of them was actually important.
What makes a problem important?
To me, the difference between urgent and important comes down not to the outcomes, but to the tradeoffs. The outcome of solving an urgent problem and the outcome of solving an important problem are the same: a problem of some value to the business no longer exists. But what makes a problem important is when the resources required to solve that problem are worth allocating. When an urgent problem is solved, that problem goes away, but it’s very possible that many other problems of greater value were created in the process. Every moment the Uber app was down created tremendous negative impact, both in terms of immediate usability as well as long-term customer engagement. It was worth allocating pretty much any resources necessary to bring the app back online. On the other hand, while this other company certainly solved its problem of not meeting its supply goal for the quarter, it also created a number of other problems in the process. First, they were out $3 million. More importantly, they pushed off a bunch of work that was going to be very impactful to the long-term health of their supply of drivers. Next quarter they’re more likely to run into the exact same supply problems because they spent time solving the urgent supply issue rather than addressing the longer-term, more important one. That cycle could repeat itself indefinitely, where the urgent supply problem is being constantly addressed while the long-term work that would have solved all of these urgent supply problems from the beginning continues to get pushed off.
How to spot urgent problems that aren’t actually important
I have found the biggest source of urgent but not important problems to be the ones where the consequence is self-imposed by the organization. Quarterly company goals are a great example. When a team misses one of its Q3 goals by 1%, it’s not as though customers will suddenly all flock to the nearest competitor. So when a team is on the verge of missing its goal, that might be an urgent problem, but it isn’t necessarily an important one. Goals are amazing for planning purposes because they help organizations determine how to allocate their resources. But they can also be unintentionally weaponized by leaders in ways that make teams do unproductive things. It’s easy to respond to a drop in platform usage by offering incentives. But what problems is that causing down the road?
Another great source of urgent but not important problems is the competition. Companies laser focused on what their competition is doing risk focusing resources away from important problems because they’re inherently being reactive to what someone else is doing rather than proactive on their own long-term strategy.
The airline industry is one of the most competitive industries around. It also happens to be my favorite industry, so if you read this blog prepare to be AvGeeked. High fixed costs (planes), low variable costs (the nearly negligible cost of one more passenger on the plane), thin margins, and elastic demand combine to make price and feature wars both common and destructive. All three of the largest airlines in the United States have been through bankruptcy in the last 20 years. Over the last 10-15 years, two of those airlines have been copying each other back and forth, whereas the other one has been entirely focused on executing its own strategy. Delta rolled out Basic Economy fares a few years ago, and then United and American rolled them out almost immediately after. Delta came out with faster internet, then United and American made plans for faster internet. Delta built a fleet strategy of renewing old planes instead of buying new ones. American and United started to do the same. Instead of following their own strategies, United and American have often just copied Delta’s plans at many points in the past. The results are very clear in their relative stock performance in the years leading up to the pandemic:
Being able to differentiate between your organization’s urgent problems and the ones that are truly important will mean the difference between effectively using your resources and organizational whiplash. Urgent problems are easy to get distracted by; they’re any problem that demands attention. But the most effective leaders will not take the bait. Instead, they will ask not just whether solving this problem would be good for the company long-term, but also what the opportunity cost and additional problems created will be.