The Management Series
May 2017

Using Reflective Urgency to Act Quickly, Smartly

What to do and how to behave in an emergency or when snap decisions need to be made is one of the biggest dilemmas managers face.

“An unbridled urgency can be counterproductive and costly. If you’re too quick to react, you can end up with short-sighted decisions or superficial solutions, neglecting underlying causes and [creating] collateral damage in the process,” Jesse Sostrin, head of PwC’s Leadership Coaching Center of Excellence, writes in the Harvard Business Review.

“But if you’re too deliberative and slow to respond,” he adds, “you can get caught flat-footed, potentially missing an opportunity or allowing an emergent challenge to consume you.”

Sostrin preaches the need to use “reflective urgency” to avoid tilting to one extreme or the other. He outlines the specific types of over-reactive behaviors that crop up in high-pressure circumstances and uses anecdotes to illustrate ways to develop and nurture reflective urgency.

He describes how a sales VP named Haruto had the proverbial thousands of things to do to prepare for a product launch in the face of seemingly impossible deadlines and swung somewhat wildly back and forth between thoughtful reflection and urgent action.

“You cannot reduce the demands you face, nor can you afford to attack them with the reckless abandon of unchecked urgency,” Sostrin writes. “But you can recognize that not every issue requires the same approach. Depending on the situation, you can consciously, and subtly, turn down or dial up the required elements of reflection and urgency.”

Haruto, he says, developed a 60/40 model to determine whether a given situation required action or careful thought. “For each initiative, he assessed whether success relied more on urgent action or thoughtful reflection. If he determined that a 60% focus on action was required (e.g., for tactical, routine work), Haruto would shrink the time and attention devoted to the work in order to favor efficiency. But if deliberation mattered more and action was only valued at 40% (e.g., for relationship-defining moments, innovation-specific work, etc.), he expanded the time and deepened his focus to allow for dynamic thinking.”

Sostrin also describes how to avoid falling into “urgency traps” that can cause trouble down the road, such as ending meetings on a schedule as opposed to when the work is actually done. Or multitasking when one item actually needs your full attention.

Then there’s the issue of setting priorities. Sostrin says many of us naturally churn away at tasks that easily could be delegated because it is what we are good at and makes us feel productive. But that leaves little or no time “to focus on longer-term, strategic issues.”

By taking the steps he suggests to balance your behaviors and reactions, “your decisiveness…will not be at the mercy of the counterproductive habits and unconscious oversights that occur when you act without your best thinking.”

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