Important vs. Urgent: A Lesson Learned Early In My Career

Some 30 years ago, I learned a lesson from my manager about how to allocate time and energy at work to both urgent business demands and planning for the future. This early experience left an important mark on my professional career.\r\n\r\nMy typical workday started with a pile of documents in my inbox and some informal conversations with the other junior marketers. This was in the ‘80s, before the advent of email.\r\n\r\nI would receive several follow-up messages from my boss during the day (in writing, in person, on the phone or through his assistant). However, every so often there would be a different type of request from him. He would call or stop by to ask me if I was working on something urgent. Following my standard “yes” answer, he would ask me what the urgent task was (like meeting a deadline on a sales analysis report), and in most cases, adjust the urgency of the task (like moving the deadline of the pending report, which he had originally set) and instead ask me to go to his office to “get creative.” That was his way of asking me to brainstorm with him on some strategic, unsolved challenge.\r\n\r\nWe would spend quite a bit of time, more than an hour, brainstorming the root-cause of the strategic challenge and potential solutions. He would close his office door, place his feet on the desk, and invite me to do the same.\r\n\r\nOne strategic challenge was how to accelerate the growth of one of our products. It was fairly new in the market and had low brand awareness. We brainstormed several potential solutions. The leading idea was creating a playing cards contest that would be sponsored by our product and televised in a highly-rated TV show.\r\n\r\nOne day, the general manager, who liked to “manage by walking around,” came into my boss’s office to ask for a piece of information. He was surprised (and certainly not happy) to see us doing what looked like goofing off. My boss told him we were “being creative,” but the general manager did not seem convinced. In fact, after a few more surprise visits that coincided with these creative sessions, he half-jokingly indicated that he would not be surprised to find us playing cards during office hours . . .\r\n\r\nSure enough, one of his visits coincided with my manager and I playing cards in his office. We were trying to fine-tune the contest rules, so we could estimate the odds of winning. The general manager stormed into the office and screamed: “I knew it, you guys were not working but goofing off!” I thought that was the end of my short career, but my manager explained to him that we were working on a TV game show to increase the brand awareness of one of our newer products. The general manager played a few practice hands with us and was sold on the plan. He asked us to make it happen in the fastest possible time.\r\n\r\nThe lesson I learned was to always keep an eye on the important, strategic challenges, despite all the urgent business demands. The corollary to this lesson was that work can also be fun, and as a manager, you should look for ways to motivate employees by leveraging the fun component where feasible.\r\n\r\nDo you have any important vs. urgent experience you want to share?\r\n\r\nPercy M. Cannon\r\nAuthor, Business Consultant, Facilitator, and Professional Coach\r\

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