Fighting Fires vs. Planting Seeds
Most organizational leaders are intimately familiar with the “urgent vs. important” phenomenon: things that are important in the long-term or larger context are quite often displaced by near-term and “tactical” fires that demand to be put out. We tend to postpone addressing the important because we feel like the urgent must be dealt with now. In this way things like true strategic planning or good foresight work are continuously being put off for crisis management or fighting fires.
There are a number of personal and organizational reasons for the urgent so often winning out against the important, and assuming that we are not going to change human nature any time soon (biological engineering notwithstanding), those of us who are concerned with assisting organizations with doing good long-term thinking are left with a couple of important questions. First, can we in fact develop ways to address both urgent-seeming issues and longer-term important issues at the same time (i.e. within the same conversation)? Second, if we can, then what might that look like?
For the sake of today’s discussion, I am going to assume that we can in fact figure out ways to get organizations to address both the urgent and the important at the same time. Would it be easy, given that attention span is finite and juggling multiple complex issues at the same time is difficult? No, it wouldn’t be easy, but let us just say for right now that it can be done.
Framing the Urgent Within the Context of the Important
Let us assume that you have been working on longer-term thinking in some fashion in your organization. Perhaps you have been doing scanning and emerging issues analysis, or your team has been working on forecasting a set of new long-term scenarios for the organization. Before you can engage all of the organization’s leaders in the work or project, a new “crisis” breaks and suddenly all of the leadership’s attention swings away to focus on this newly urgent issue. Further assuming that this is not a genuine, “the house is burning down issue,” the burden will fall to you to frame the urgent issue within the broader context of the important issue(s) you have been working on and to make decision making within that broader context easier.
One way to attempt this would be to position the urgent issue – and its different possible outcomes – as a set of near-term scenarios. Nothing fancy here, just using whatever distinctions or language the organization’s leaders are now using to describe the different possibilities the organization is facing. Then, drawing on the “important” issues you have been working with, position those trends/emerging issues/scenarios as part of the broader context in which the near-term scenarios sit. Figure 1 below illustrates this approach with a hypothetical set of near-term “urgent” scenarios and a longer-term set of “important” issues.
Part of the burden on you will be to “map” the pathways from the different near-term possibilities to the longer-term possibilities. This creates for decision makers an easy-to-follow set of paths from the near-term to the longer-term. And you have a couple of challenges here: 1) show them that the longer-term issues you have been working on will still be “out there” no matter what happens in the near-term, and; 2) you may need to change the longer-term scenarios, or at least the pathways to those scenarios, based on which of the near-term possibilities happens/is chosen.
A Necessary Challenge
The best way to think about what you would be trying to do with this approach is to see it as framing the urgent within the larger context of the important, and to do so in a way that is easily understood and that facilitates quick decision-making (or at least does not impose a great additional mental burden on the organization’s leaders). Again, not likely an easy task, but often a necessary one to try. Urgent issues are often important in their own right, but often they are not nearly as dire as we make them out to be, and a pattern of consistently displacing the important for the urgent helps to keep us locked into a fire-fighting mode or a crisis management mentality.