Coaching The
Urgency/Priority Trap

by Herb Stevenson

Over the course of the last several years, I've noticed that many executives have gotten into what feels like a Fortran programming "Do Loop". A "Do Loop" is a set of instructions to "do" specific tasks until a defined condition occurs, wherein the program ends by producing a defined result. Problematic to programming is that it becomes an endless loop of analysis if there is no condition included in the programming to complete the task and end the infinite loop. In short, the same thing is done over and over without a means for ending it.

In searching for answers to what I was seeing, I discovered that Heike Bruch and Jochen Menges partially describe the situation as an Acceleration Trap, (HBR, April, 2010). An acceleration trap occurs when leadership demands that employees give the same level of accelerated effort every day without reprieve until their performance declines and the organization begins a downward spiral of miscues that shifts the organization from high performance to crisis management. A cliche' for this approach is "pedal to the meddle".

Michelle Barton and Kathleen Sutcliffe reinforce the idea of an acceleration trap in their research on dysfunctional momentum (Learning When to Stop Momentum, MITSloan Management Review, Spring, 2010, Vol. 51., No. 3.). In their research, they determined that "dysfunctional momentum occurs when people continue to work toward an original goal without pausing to recalibrate or reexamine their processes, even in the face of cues that suggest they should change course." (69) A cliche' for this approach is "not stopping to check the map or ask for directions".

Edward Hallowell, an expert on attention deficit disorders, further clarifies this concern when he describes the speed of everyday work has led to overloaded circuits that leads to under-performance throughout the organization because of attention deficit traits (ADT). (Overloaded Circuits, HBR, January, 2005) The capacity to discern is coopted and quality tends to diminish in every type of work whether it is physical or mental. A working cliche' for this process is "do not bother me with questions or details" because I cannot comprehend them.

Although each of these articles provide a glimpse of the demands on the day-to-day executive, I found that sharing these concepts was not impacting my clients during coaching and was definitely not resulting in positive change in their behaviors.

Urgency and Priority1

As I explored their situations, it became clear that time was being warped within the organization and within the clients' mind. As we unraveled the idea that time was not being perceived in a supportive way, it dawned on me that every duty, task, and responsibility were being dumped into a bucket that was a high priority and required immediate attention, creating an urgency. As I explored it with my clients they acknowledged that every thing was urgent and everything was a high priority. We also realized that this resulted in a lack of differentiation (or discernment) in when and how to get the work done.

As I discussed this paradox with the clients, each one recognized that little time had been put into determining the actual level of importance (priority) for major projects and rarely was the time frame included. Generally, each day felt like a tidal wave of projects that connoted a need to get it done, now, if not sooner.

On a sheet of paper, I drew a matrix of urgency and priority. I asked the client to rate the level of importance for each of their projects, not allowing everything to have a number one priority. Once we had rated each projects degree of importance, we created a realistic deadline for completion. Again, it was not allowed for each project to have an immediate deadline. We focused on what is a realistic deadline, all things considered. The impact was immediate. Each client acknowledged that they had had a sense of lifting the weight of the world off their shoulders. The matrix provided a realistic and defensible way to manage project completion. It was realistic as it created a sense of actual importance combined with realistic time frames for completion.

Several clients agreed to use the matrix as a simplified tracking system towards determining importance with urgency. The clients that actually used the matrix found a renewed sense of centeredness surrounding work. The clients that could not muster the interest and discipline to do so, continued to feel lost and overwhelmed.
See Figure 1.

Figure 1. Priority/Urgency Matrix

Urgency 30 Days 60 Days 90 Days 180 Days 365 Days

The purpose of the form is to distinguish the urgency (immediacy) from the significance or importance of the project. It enables a better means for addressing what needs done moment to moment versus falling prey to the perception that all projects are in near crisis mode.

Learning from the Process

One key learning was to stay with the organization's symptoms until a sense of what was actually happening could surface as a pattern. In addition, I recognized that the matrix allowed me to understand that "how time is perceived" directly relates to the capacity of the executive to be effective.

Time as a Tool for Executives

Typically, time is seen by most executives as something to manage. Every minute is accounted for and every effort is applied to create maximum efficiency and effectiveness. Time is treated more as a precious commodity than as a leadership tool.

Time as a tool evolves from executives that recognize that their job is to influence the work to be done. In other words, leaders are constantly focused on "work through" resulting in "work done by" others. Typical time management blurs this differentiation because it extricates the leader's presence and positional power from the equation. The focus is on how to get work done instead of how to get work done through the organization.

For example, there are a lot of barkers. They bark orders, crawl way too deep into the details, and demand immediate results. Generally, they tend to perceive that work is done by them. Leaders do not engage the frenetic energies of the system. Instead they slow the process to ensure they have a clear picture of what is happening or not, by whom, and seek a method of getting the work done by the organization. Leaders do not add crisis energy to the system except when absolutely required. They provide guidance, direction, resources, and insight. They seek to insure that their intent matches the impact.

Three Principles

This differentiation returned me to my Gestalt roots and the three principles of successful interventions: (1) Less is more, (2) Small is big, and (3) Slow is fast. As leadership is by definition a form of intervention, it became clear to me that leaders implicitly use them.

As taught at the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland, the three principles of successful interventions revolve around an awareness of the counter-intuitiveness of our intention versus our impact in every intervention. The leader takes the time to ask what is the most effective process I can apply to any intervention. Returning to the above statement that there are a lot of executive barkers instead of leaders, we can apply these principles.

Executive barkers do not understand positional power except as a tool to force action. An executive leader understands that every action will ripple deep into the organization and therefore uses the position to influence the organization through providing guidance, direction, and insight. Intent is closely monitored for impact.

When we apply the three principles of an intervention (any act of leadership), we begin to discover a leadership presence and maturity. For example, if the executive is a barker, he will tend to push more, bigger, and faster down through the ranks. As suggested in the early paragraphs, the impact is that those in line with this tidal wave of force will be bulled over. There is no time taken to differentiate between urgency or priority. The acceleration trap locks the organization into a spiral towards burnout, the momentum trap locks the organization into a target that might not apply anymore, and many of the employees will suffer from ADT.

The leader, on the other hand, recognizes that when positional power is used to influence and motivate the organization, it evokes the true power within the organization to do what it does well. Hence, the most productive approach is often by focusing on how to match the intention with the impact. This means the executive provides guidance, direction, and insights that are well measured interventions. Typically, these interventions are smaller, less intrusive, and slower than directives and spontaneous decisions. The leader seeks to insure that the desired impact is consistent with the intention. Once this consistency is managed, the positional power begins the process of moving the message throughout the organization.


Returning to the Urgency/Priority matrix, as the clients began to utilize it in weekly planning meetings, it became clear that the matrix enabled the clients to focus their energy and their intention to manage work completion versus attempting to force work completion through typical time management. As this progressed, there was evidence that there was less stress from the direct reports. More dialogue evolved in the planning and weekly updates. A general tenseness was greatly reduced within the meetings. They each learned that less is more, slow is fast, and small is big if intent is matched to impact.


Michelle Barton, & Kathleen Sutcliffe, Learning When to Stop Momentum, MITSloan, Management Review, Spring, 2010, Vol. 51., No. 3

Heike Bruch & Jochen Menges, The Acceleration Trap, Harvard Business Review, April 2010

Edward Hallowell, Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform, Harvard Business Review, January, 2005.

John Kotter, A Sense of Urgency, 2008.


1A Lesson from Kotter: John Kotter noted that establishing a sense of urgency by examining market and competitive realities and identifying and discussing crises, potential crises, or major opportunities is imperative for leading in today's market. It can drive the changes needed to traverse the many perils in today's environment.

Kotter added that a false sense of urgency is driven by pressures to perform that actually create fear, anxiety, and anger. Because it is a false sense of urgency, often created through veiled threats, the resulting frantic activity is more distracting than useful. Unproductive noise is created that wastes time, energy, and brainpower. (A Sense of Urgency, 2008)

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