Urgent vs. Important: A cautionary tale

Pied Piper with Children

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This story is about me and the work I failed to do.

It is a bummer.  I’m sorry about that.  I’m not to the part where things turn around yet.

I’ve decided to share this now, rather than wait until I’m out of the hole, so that you (and your organization or project)  might learn from my mistakes and be able to avoid this dangerous, yet common trap.

Three years ago I was hired to manage a robotics program.  The program was pretty new, had seed support from one large donor and had just received a grant from another organization to hire a staff person to manage and “grow” the program.

The work I did managing the program was frankly, amazing.  The growth?  not so much.

Now the grant period is over.  I developed a plan to raise the funds we need to continue with a full time staff person but since we’ve shown little growth in the past three years, the board has decided the staff position is not a good investment.

Looking at the situation from the outside, they have made a wise decision.

Here’s where it gets tricky.  From the board’s point of view it’s clear the problem was lack of staff leadership.  This perspective is not without merit, and yet, as the staff person doing the job day the situation was a bit more complicated.

Every day I had two choices:

  1. Do the detailed, managerial work that must be done  to ensure the program runs smoothly tomorrow.
  2. Inspire others (in this case,volunteers) to develop and execute plans to reach more supporters, better connect industry with schools, and make sure the community knew about the good work that is getting done.

My failure?  I chose #1 almost every day.  I spent my days putting out the fires right in front of me.  I used the praise I received for excellent management to soothe my fears about the lack of growth and lack of connection.  I let myself believe the instruction “the volunteers must lead this effort” meant that the volunteers were ultimately responsible for our success or failure to grow the program.  I was really, really wrong about that, and now I will accept the consequences.

Avoid the Urgent Trap

There is no way for me to rewind time and do things differently (this time), but  there may be time for you.

If you find yourself avoiding the important, difficult aspects of your work in favor of the urgent, day to day details, take these steps immediately.

Hire someone right now (or find a good volunteer) to do the parts of your job that are routine.  If a task can be done via a good written procedure, then write the procedure and never spend your time on the task again.  This is not to say the detail/managerial work isn’t valuable–its absolutely critical.  But it is also never-ending.  Until some (or all) of that work is off your plate you will continue to be distracted from the leadership and development work for which you are ultimately responsible.

Don’t confuse being responsible for an outcome and being the person who should do it. This was my biggest failing.  Rather than figuring out why volunteers were not doing what I needed them to do and finding a way for them to be successful, I either did the work I wanted them to do on my own, or let the work go undone.  Both of these solutions were detrimental.  By doing the work I was able to do, I filled up my time with work that made me feel busy but wasn’t going to get us where we wanted to go (see point # 1).  Then, I had no time or energy left to work with volunteers to approach the growth and leadership dilemmas in new ways.

Don’t be afraid to sound the alarm.  I knew six months into this job that what we were doing wasn’t working.  I made some attempts to reorganize our work or to tell people one on one that we needed to try something else–but mostly I stuck my fingers in the dam and masked issues as well as I could.  Unfortunately, I succeeded.  If I had treated the volunteers and the organization’s leaders as partners who could work with me to find a path that worked, rather than grouchy parents who would judge me for not being successful, we might be in a different place right now.

Your Turn

This is where the uplifting, “look what we’ve learned, isn’t life in nonprofit work amazing” message goes.  I’m still working that part out.  In the meantime, tell us in the comments what you are going to do today to keep from ending up in this hole with me.

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19 thoughts on “Urgent vs. Important: A cautionary tale

  1. Maureen, what a thoughtful and helpful post. It could be in Harvard Business Review. I wish my nonprofit manager friends would all read it. I’ll try to see that they do. Looking back on my own full-time job at a large non-profit, I see the wisdom of this advice. Thank you!

  2. This is a classic situation, and also falls into the “leadership versus management” conundrum. It happens everywhere.

    Shining a light on this is valuable (please note the use of understatement here).

    Using yourself as an example is brave. You will save a lot of people a lot of grief by sharing your experience.

    • Thanks Stacey–it’s certainly not new advice but it’s much easier to say than it is to do. My hope is a real life example of how the distinction can bite you will be of help to people. This experience has certainly brought the lesson home for me.

  3. Thnx for sharing this – echoing the brave part.

    I know all to well what you mean – I think that’s one of the reasons that we are not further along on our own Path – too much day-to-day stuff and not enough long-term.

  4. Read your blog after seeing a Pam Grow RT this AM. I appreciate you sharing this example in order to help others. I think your experience is an all too frequent one, especially in organizations with a small staff. The urgent management issues are so many that somehow there is never time for the big picture work.

    I wondered if there was a clear, shared vision from the beginning of what a successful outcome would be and discussion about how progress would be evaluated.

    You’ve already mentioned a couple of key points about what it would take to focus on the leadership/growth issue and still make sure the day to day is accomplished. As you’ve thought about it more, any additional insights?

    • Hi Nancy,

      Thanks for your thoughtful questions. As is always the case, the whole situation was quite a bit more complicated than can easily be covered in a 700 word blog post!

      To answer your questions, there was clear vision of what success would look like–but quite a bit of mud about who was responsible for what. Also, I believe the expectations of what staff should do and volunteers should do included some unrealistic expectations.

      As for additional insights, I’d say there were places where I failed because I didn’t do the right thing, and there were places where I failed because I was being asked to do the wrong thing, or an impossible thing. Rather than reflect on that in the moment, I just kept pushing–or gave up completely. In retrospect, I would make better use of reflection and experimentation to try more ideas–and would spend more time examining if the path suggested to me was the right one.

  5. Kate Voris recommended I read this. My first reaction was ‘I don’t have time right now…’. So glad I took the time. Thanks for sharing your eye opening self assessment and resulting revelations.

  6. Hi Kate and Maria–

    It’s so great to see you here. I’m glad the article resonated. If you felt like sharing I’d love to hear examples of what you are doing now to make room for the “important” stuff.

  7. Hey Maureen –
    I passed on your article link to my Executive Director of a local community group I volunteer with. She is struggling with the same challenges that you mention in the article. The organization is struggling to grow its volunteer base, programming base etc. but she is stuck crossing t’s and dotting i’s. Interesting part is that I am a board member here, not staff. How do I support her, engage her to go out and connect and leave the admin at home? Hmm. I will get back to you on that, but we are writing up a volunteer engagement document right now to get more people in the right places where they are needed asap to free up the ED’s time.
    Always a pleasure…JennyM

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