There IS Time: How a False Sense of Urgency Gets Us in Trouble

“People are so busy, it will be difficult to get them to take the time for a longer meeting.”

“C’mon, we had a majority vote, we need to make a decision and move forward, stop belaboring things, even if some people disagree.”

“Enough talk, let’s move to action and get things done.”

This sense of urgency, impatience, and scarce overbooked time has become pervasive and needs to be questioned. It can be a recipe for making poor decisions and wasting a lot more time later. Pushing to “go fast” can actually slow things down. What follows is an exploration of a few ways that this dynamic can manifest and the ways it can impede our personal and group effectiveness:

A Hindrance to Networked Collaboration – Effective collaboration requires trusting relationships and a shared sense of common purpose. Building trust takes time and intention and shared experiences. If meetings are squeezed to just a few hours amidst people’s busy days, with little time for informal conversation, then people typically relate to each other through their professional persona and titles. In contrast, off site retreats, in-person gatherings with relaxed times for meals and socializing, and learning journeys to explore other case studies are all examples of ways to deepen the bonds of trust and thereby enable moSun skyre effective progress on a common agenda.

While it may seem to be more efficient to keep meetings short, a group that has not built trust and fundamental agreements about common purpose and how they will work together can waste a lot of time spinning, debating, and circling around in meetings. Without trust of their collaborators, it can be risky to commit to joint action or real change. For example, a colleague who worked in state government shared the story of a collaborative initiative among state agency leaders. In the early meetings, each agency leader spoke from their professional role about how great their state’s work was. After a year of meetings that included social time for people to get to know and trust each other, the conversations shifted and people felt safe to share the true challenges of their job. The relationships that were formed enabled leaders to have each others’ back in tough times and together garner the joint courage to commit to innovative policies and changes that would not be easy politically.

The “Need for Speed” that Squelches Conflict – Just recently, I have had conversations with three different friends/colleagues about situations where an organization was making a hiring decision and asked for the input and opinions of staff or other people who will work with the new leader. When their input or suggestions came back that were different than what someone in positional authority considered the right choice, instead of pausing the process to listen and more fully consider their concerns/opinions, the decision was, “we need to move forward and make a decision.” In this case, the false sense of urgency can be used, consciously or not, as a way to override voices that do not agree and avoid conflict.

An Action Focus that Leaves Little Time for Creating the “Glue” for Collaboration – In our work helping create and grow collaborative networks, there are typically at least a few people in the room who are impatient with “talk and process” and urge the group to quickly move to taking action to get results. While this can be a useful impulse to ensure that time spent working with the group leads to real change, as my colleague Curtis Ogden puts it, “Talking vs. doing is a false binary.” Many activities that a group works on through talking are about building a shared understanding that will enable more powerful and effective collective work over time, such as visioning, mapping who does what, deeply listening to others’ perspectives on the problem/system, and developing agreement on how decisions will be made.

An Impatience for Solutions that Short-Cuts Fundamental Systems Change – Working to increase the scale of positive impact usually requires fundamentally changing complex systems. Changing systems is different than implementing an organizational strategy; it calls for working in new ways, particularly in engaging the perspectives of the whole system, gathering data, and listening to voices that are often not heard. It calls for taking the time to reflect on our own role in the system and the underlying values and assumptions we carry so that we do not unconsciously perpetuate the unhealthy dynamics we are trying to change. For example, the RE-AMP network brought together dozens of organizations and funders to improve renewable energy and efficiency in the Midwest. About 12 non-profits and 7 foundations devoted over a year to mapping and analyzing the factors affecting the energy system in the Midwest, enabling them to see the interconnectedness of issues. Some groups had little patience for this work and dropped out, while others saw the value of this process, even though it took time. Going through it enabled the participants to develop a deeper shared understanding of the dynamics of the system and how their work all related. It also built trust, which sustained a successful network of collaboration that continues after 10 years. The original core of organizations who developed the systems maps expanded into a network of over 100 organizations. Rick Reed, one of the organizers, said in a Q&A session that some of the early naysayers are now  integrated into the process and are some of their best partners. 
The Personal Price – Lastly, this unconscious mindset of hurry and rush creates personal stress, both physical and psychological, which also hinders our creativity and access to greater clarity (e.g., imagine trying to accomplish a task or think creatively with a loudly ticking clock or a person impatiently tapping their fingers and sighing next to you.)  

Another Way
In the situations above, I have found it useful to name the assumption that “we do not have time” and question it. Why is the assumption that we do not have time to make a thoughtful considered decision? Will it really save time to override people’s concerns and suggestions of what course of action will work better? Teams, organizations, and networks can consciously choose to “go slow to go fast” and get it right the first time.

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