Peak-performance cultures maintain a sense of urgency. Urgency is a feeling people experience. Urgency is when your people believe not only that something specific needs to be accomplished, but also that that specific something must be accomplished within a specific time frame or significant negative consequences will result.

All other things being equal, the leaders of these companies know that faster is better. They have mastered the art of establishing and maintaining this sense of urgency. The most effective leaders establish and regulate the sense of urgency in their companies.

People in organizations where there is a palpable and appropriate sense of urgency tend to:

  • assume a "whatever it takes" attitude;
  • do what is needed versus what is wanted;
  • ignore distractions;
  • be intolerant of wasting time and non-value-added activity;
  • get to the point;
  • resist gossip; and
  • work quickly.

When you as a leader establish and maintain an appropriate sense of urgency, people stop fretting over the trivial -- they don't make small issues big issues. They tend to use what they have in innovative ways. They have a bias toward action, are intolerant of planning loops, and tend to keep the main thing the main thing -- whatever that is. Most of all, they shift from a reactionary response to proactive planning and morale goes up.

Leaders of these peak performance companies are constantly sensing the degree of urgency in themselves and their key personnel.

They manage the level of urgency by making sure key personnel are aligned on 1) a deep and truthful assessment of the current operating environment of the company and/or project, 2) the specific intended outcomes, and 3) the fewest, most important things that must be accomplished to close the gap between "a" and "b."

Key personnel have a deep and clear shared understanding of the consequences and implications of failing to achieve the desired state in the time frame that has been identified. The more real and personal these consequences feel to the people, at both an emotional and financial level, the deeper the feeling of urgency will be.

Take these ideas for a test drive. Write down the names of the seven most important people in your group or company. Don't just rely on your organization chart. Write down the seven highest future value people. Include that hotshot young person that everybody admires and listens to.

OK, now imagine I came to your office and interviewed each one of these seven people individually and confidentially. Here are the questions I would ask:

  1. How would you describe the current operating environment of this company? What are its specific constraints to growth and its primary levers of growth? What parts of the company are in most need of enhanced performance? What is happening in your operating environment that requires careful monitoring?
  2. What specifically are you and your teammates trying to do in the marketplace? What is your current intention regarding customers? What are you trying to build or accomplish and by when? What is your vision for the company?
  3. What are the fewest, most critical initiatives that are being implemented, and do you have any concerns about how they are going? Are they the right ones? Are the right people working them? What is making it hard to accomplish them on time? Are roles clear?
  4. What is really at stake, for the company and for you personally, should you and your team fail to achieve these initiatives?         

Imagine that I gathered the responses to these questions from the seven top people you identified. Imagine I analyzed all their responses and reported my findings to you.

To what degree would each person have well thought out answers to these critical questions? To what degree would the answers be aligned with their peers? Where are the areas of deepest shared alignment?

Where do their answers vary the most? Answers that vary considerably are NOT good.

A mist in this group creates a fog in the organization.

Ask yourself, "What would I have to do to get myself and these seven people into deep alignment around truthful and well thought our answers to these questions?" Do that.

Their deep alignment around these focusing questions is your source of both creative tension and urgency. And ensuring appropriate relative tension and urgency is a fundamental responsibility of leadership.