Management Articles


The Tyranny of the Urgent Can Cause Priority Overload

By: Jim Clemmer

Jim Clemmer is an international keynote speaker, workshop leader, author, and president of The CLEMMER Group, a North American network of organization, team, and personal improvement consultants based in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. His other bestsellers include Firing on All Cylinders: The Service/Quality System for High-Powered Corporate Performance, and his most recent book, Growing the Distance: Timeless Principles for Personal, Career, and Family Success. His web site is

"He that is everywhere is nowhere."
    Thomas Fuller, 17th century historian, scholar, and author
A frantic manager burst into a travel agency and exclaimed, "I need an airplane ticket immediately!" "Where would you like to go?", the travel agent asked. "I don't care, just get me on a plane. I've got business everywhere," was the desperate reply. Time management author and consultant, R. Alec Mackenzie once observed, "Urgency engulfs the manager; yet the most urgent task is not always the most important. The tyranny of the urgent lies in its distortion of priorities. One of the measures of a manager is the ability to distinguish the important from the urgent, to refuse to be tyrannized by the urgent, to refuse to manage by crisis."

Unsuccessful organizations are often beehives of activity and hard work. Reflecting on the performance of his struggling company a departmental manager observed, "We have lots of projects, goals, and priorities. We're constantly making lists and setting action plans. But we seldom see anything through to completion before some urgent new priority is pushed at us. Our division manager's thinking seems to be 'random brain impulse.' He's like a nervous water bug that flits from one half-baked strategy to another."

In the midst of tumultuous change, many managers are confusing "busywork" activity with results. Missing what's really important to long-term growth and development, they allow themselves to be tyrannized by short-term urgencies. But we just can't do it all. The list of dreams we could pursue to realize is a lengthy one. The number of improvements we could make to our performance gaps are countless. Searching and exploring to create tomorrow's markets and customers can uncover endless innovation possibilities.

So we've got to choose. From all our long-range options, alternatives, and possibilities we've got to establish short-term goals and priorities. There are as many things we've got to stop doing, as there are actions we've got to start taking. Some actions will drive us forward, many will hold us back, and some won't matter much either way. But without clear targets and a strong sense of what's most important, I and everyone on my team or in my organization won't be able to tell the difference.

Effectively establishing goals and priorities has both strategic and tactical components. The strategic decisions are what goals and priorities we choose to pursue. Tactics are how we get organized and manage our time to reach those goals.

© Copyright 2001 The CLEMMER Group

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