On Face the Nation, March 28, 2016, Secretary John Kerry was asked his approach to the gaps in our knowledge of terrorism. He replied that, “Well, there’s great urgency. There’s a sense of urgency, clearly.” I think this is a bureaucratic way of seeming to take action when the bureaucrat does not know what to do.
I heard this comment made many times over the years. The comment usually pertaining to individual more than actions. Comments like; “he/she has no sense of urgency” or “he/she shows a sense of urgency. Again, what the heck does this statement mean? Nothing? It seems to tell us something important; but, does it really? Is he/she slow, dumb, don’t care, don’t know, or just won’t do a job? We need to know about actions taken; when and how. Is someone action orientated? This is the question. This is a major concern for first line managers. How do we get things done? Our actions are more complicated and hardly ever investigated before a judgement is made of us.
I think this sense of urgency comes from the saying,” Carpe diem”, seize the day. But, the phase when rightly translated means, “Pluck the day.” This means we are taking actions every day to accomplish our goals. Since we want to pluck the day; we might have a different sense of urgency. One that is more patient; one that waits until the day is ripe. We are not seizing the day; we are harvesting it. We planned for the day, now we are fulfilling our plan.
Before General Sherman took action in the Atlanta campaign he made sure his army was ready and could be supplied. He wanted to take action; but, he knew the action would not be successful without a strategic urgency. Strategic urgency, he wanted to move; but, not before his army’s strategic needs could be met. His every action was designed to support his army. Without this support he would not act. This was Sherman’s strategic urgency.
The distribution of electric power is very dangerous. As a manager of a business office I prepared our men for emergencies. We actually walked through actions we would take if the emergency happened. We talked through the steps to take if a lineman was unconscious at the top of a pole. We practiced these steps with a dummy at the top of the pole. We performed each action step to save the man and keep us safe during the rescue. We created an emergency since of action. If the emergency happened we knew what to do; how to do; and how to keep safe. Every action is planned. This is what we called our emergency urgency.
My neighbor was in a major chemical plant explosion. He was severely burned about the head and hands. He told me he was blown about forty feet. He remembers sitting on the tail gate of a truck telling others what needed to be done. When he reached up he realized he had no hair. He said this was the result of training for the day this might happen. He was calm because he had planned for the emergency event. This is real example of how planning for the day can be plucked when needed.
Do you think a bureaucratic organization is the birthplace of action and ideas? I do not.
I was chosen as the chairperson of a leadership training team. We were commissioned to develop a training class for our non-exempt dispatchers. I was the chairman because my department was what the managers of the other dispatch centers wanted to model. The members of the committee, like me, were dispatch managers for their centers. After our meeting with our three managers, the committee had our first meeting. I felt the resistance of the other dispatch managers. Or course, they knew that my department was to be part of the programs content.
So, the next week I wrote the first draft of the program; content, video links, and PowerPoint. I sent this to the committee members and the mangers as an example of what we could do. I thought this might overcome the resistance I saw in our first meeting. My motivation was get the committee moving.
The next day I got a phone call from the leader of the managers. This is where I got an education, again, of what it means to work in a bureaucratic organization. He told me I was moving too fast. That the committee should meet and go over the previous leadership program they gave the Operation Supervisors. The committee had this document. I explained my motivation was to just give the committee a starting point. He said, “Jim, it takes a long time to turn a ship.”
I resigned as the chairperson at out next committee meeting. When I retired eighteen months later we had not given the program.
So, what is the point? When Secretary Kerry used the phrase,” sense of urgency” in his answer was it is just a bureaucratic cover for not having a plan and taking action steps to accomplish that plan. Was his answer just a delaying tactic?
So beware, when you hear the phase, “We have to have a sense of urgency” used by a manager in a bureaucratic organization. A good next question to ask is, “what do you mean?”
After all, most first line managers tend to have a bias for action. Most times this bias is contrary to the bias of a bureaucracy. You may be moving too fast. Remember, it takes a long time to turn a ship.