July 18, 2022

Create a Sense of Urgency

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Far too often, projects follow a predictable pattern. At the beginning, people are fairly laid back. They may see ample time allotted on the project schedule for all necessary tasks and feel a sense of ease. Then, as any number of unforeseen and unpredictable things happen during the project, time slips away. At the end of the project, harried, rushed people are working overtime in crisis mode, expediting multiple tasks.

It does not need to be this way. Managers and team members need to expect the unexpected. We can plan for things we know, and sometimes we can plan for what we don’t know through the risk assessment process. But it is difficult to plan for things that we don’t know we don’t know. Less experienced managers and team members may feel too relaxed because they have faced fewer surprises in their careers, so it is the leader’s role to create a sense of urgency in order to complete projects on time and under budget. Here are some ways to create a sense of urgency on a project team:

  1. Take action. Avoid “analysis paralysis,” excessive deliberating among options or different courses of action. You have to put a lid on the up-front discussion of choices and priorities and “just do it.” This does not mean that you should cast reason over the side of the ship, but when the team’s analyzation holds up a project’s critical path, get things moving.
  2. Create a cycle of accountability. Avoid needless activities and meetings, but at least on a weekly basis, assemble your team to review what each member completed during the previous week and to commit to what they will accomplish during the coming week. This can be different from detailed scheduling and planning, but the project schedule should be in the background of these weekly meetings.
  3. Focus people on short term goals and milestones. There may be some inconsistency in the CPM project schedule when it comes to performing administrative and planning activities. At all times, focus the team on the top five to ten things that must be completed by certain times in order to keep things on track. Get involved early if you see that deadlines may not be met without some intervention. Get commitments from people and monitor who on the team does or does not deliver on what they say they will do.
  4. Keep things flowing. Very often, the work of one team member depends on another member’s completion and delivery of work. Don’t assume that these members are talking with each other between meetings. Keep the wheels turning with regular communication among team members as needed; make conference calls. Use the “ball in court” principle—keep track of who “has the ball” on every aspect of the project. You may be surprised how often people do not realize the ball is in their court and that their action is required to keep it moving.
  5. Be ready to step in. This is a last resort, when needed. You never want your team members “delegating up” to you. But when someone is clearly in over his or her head or has another problem, be ready to step in. For example, I once needed to address an employee whose alcohol problem was affecting his performance, thereby threatening the entire project.
  6. Show the team how time is money. Every project has a calculated NPV, ROI, or cost/benefit ratio that is highly dependent on timely completion of the project on the assumed schedule. Every day that a project is late means lost income or benefit to its stakeholders. Some construction contracts have a liquidated damage clause with a daily financial penalty to the contractor for late completion. From an owner’s perspective, the financial cost for late completion can be quite different than the liquidated damage amount. At any rate, it is helpful to know these numbers and communicate them to the team members, so they are aware of the impact of their performance, either positive or negative.
  7. Set the pace. Show your own sense of urgency by the pace of your walk and how you handle yourself. Don’t let things linger. Return communications quickly. Address situations immediately.

At its core, a sense of urgency is not a set of tactics, but an attitude and way of being. Some people have more or less of it naturally, but you can cultivate it. To get things done on time, instill a sense of urgency within your project teams.

This blog is a modified version of the text originally included in Mr. Vallez’s book On Time and Under Budget.

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