Urgent vs. Important: A cautionary tale

Pied Piper with Children

Image via Wikipedia

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.