Monday, November 18, 2013

Urgent vs. Actual Priorities

Seth Godin has a great post here about managing tantrums. The part that really stuck with me was this paragraph:

Engaging in the middle of a tantrum does two things: it rewards the tantrum by giving it your attention, and it makes it likely that you'll get caught up, and say or do something that, in the mind of the tantrum-thrower, justifies the tantrum. That's the fuel the tantrum is looking for--we throw tantrums, hoping people will throw them back.

The first image of a tantrum is probably a small child writhing in a fit of rage at the commissary checkout counter. But the reality is that we see tantrums every day in the Navy in the form of URGENT tasking. Urgent tasking is something last minute that requires immediate action. It always appears at inconvenient times, and trumps everything else.

The problem here is not that urgent tasking appears. Sometimes things do come up last minute, and we must deal with them. But what I see all too often is that we operate from day-to-day, and while we may set goals, we struggle to achieve them. Don't believe me?

- How many of you constantly check email every day, waiting for tasks to appear, instead of walking your spaces and setting priorities?
- How many of you turn in something nearly late, or finish it on the day it's due?
- Do you have travel orders more than a week in advance if you know about your travel ahead of time?
- How many of you say you value Sailors, but you don't take the time to write awards because you spend so much time checking email and putting out fires?

Let's face it, it's hard to not jump on the urgent tasking grenade. Getting a short-term task done feels great and might get you in front of the boss as a hero. But it directly impedes the daily grind towards long term goals, and if we have urgent tasking almost every day, those goals are left unaccomplished.

How do you solve this?

As Seth Godin tells us, tantrums want attention. I've had plenty of times a Sailor has burst through my door with a problem that he or she feels warrants my attention right now. The winning formula I've found is:

- Listen for up to five minutes
- Acknowledge the situation
- If it is a priority, make the decision right there
- If not (most cases), assign it to someone and give it a timeline

Here's what this does:

- Listening to the complaint is important. Too often people simply want to be heard, and if we simply do that right away, it may defuse the problem.
- Acknowledging the situation lets the Sailor know you understand what is going on. It doesn't mean you agree with it, or the side of the story the Sailor is presenting. It simply acknowledges what the Sailor said.
- Actions that violate the UCMJ, endanger a ship or the people onboard, or have a hard deadline must be solved. Decision delaying is frustrating, so make the call and move on.
- EVERYTHING ELSE is urgent but not a priority. Assigning the task to someone and a due date helps you track it. You may assign it to the original complainer. If nothing else, now that Sailor knows who he or she will go to in the future.

Once you start doing this, urgent tasking will begin occupying less of your day. More importantly, your long term goals will be accomplished, helping to move your organization forward.