That Which is Urgent is Not Always Important

That Which is Urgent is Not Always Important

We’ve all been there — that sudden call from one of your Sales team with a customer “on the hook” but they only need this one more thing to close the deal.  Or maybe it’s an escalated issue from your biggest customer that lands in your mailbox with gigantic ALL CAPS AND EXCLAMATION MARKS!!!!!!  Or worse yet, it’s your CEO who “stops by for a quick chat” about something that he overheard at an industry event last night.  Regardless of where these things come from, they all have one thing in common — they’re urgent.  They require your time now.  They simply cannot be ignored.

Or can they?  Or more accurately, should they be ignored?  If you ask me, the answer is absolutely.  Things that are “urgent” are thrust upon us by others with some expectation that we’ll drop everything and deal with them — not on our terms, but on the terms of someone else.  Here’s why you should beware of the urgent and instead focus on what’s important

“Urgency” is a Trap

Almost without fail, things that are considered “urgent” are those which are thrust upon us by someone else in the organization.  They’re disruptive requests that break our flow and demand our attention.  The problem is, the urgency of these things is not determined by us, but rather by others — and reflect not our own carefully-considered strategic goals, but often simply the tactical needs of that other party.  All too often, not only are these tactical needs divergent from our strategic goals, but they act in complete opposition to them.  We may have just launched a new project, to bring some valuable feature to our users, solving a problem that they’ve been suffering from for months — but an “urgent” escalation pops up from the last project we worked on.  A new feature, a minor tweak, an obvious bug.  All with the expectation that we’ll have our teams drop whatever they’re working on and resolve this.  Because it’s urgent…but is it actually important?

“Importance” is Stoic

The best thing about importance is that it’s not usually emotional — whereas urgency is almost always emotional.  Important things are those which move us forward, which have positive ROI, and which allow us (and our product, and our company) to achieve our goals.  Questions of importance are questions of alignment, ranking by importance is a matter of understanding impacts and effort, discussions of importance focus on outcomes and not issues.  Every Product Manager worth their salt simply must be able to identify when something is actually important — otherwise we wind up randomizing our teams and being fundamentally incapable of delivering value to our customers.

Understanding is Key

There certainly are things that are urgent and important; those are the rare situation that requires immediate action.  More often than not, something will be urgent but not important– and in those situations we need to be willing and able to hold off the request until we can properly prioritize it into our work stream.  We need to take time to figure out what it really means, what the consequences of not acting might be, and most importantly to determine to whom we might be able to delegate the responsibility; what’s not important to us might be important to another person or another team.  Delegation is an undervalued skill in Product Management, but an essential tool in our box — especially when we’re being inundated with requests that are urgent to someone but not important enough for us to diverge from our plan.

Knowing the difference between what’s urgent and what’s actually important will make you a better Product Manager — guaranteed.

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