The Difference Between Panic and Urgency

I received the following email earlier this week from an exec at a company that I am on the board of.  He sent it out to his entire company.  I thought it clearly described the different between panic and urgency and explains why – in a business context – panic is useless, but urgency is critical.  I don’t think I could have said this better if I had tried.

In recent weeks, many of my business contacts have discussed the economy and the pressure we are all feeling on a daily basis. They all have a sense of pressure. I am sure many of you can relate. If you are not feeling the pressure these days, then you may want to step outside or turn on the TV, or read a newspaper.

It has brought up a topic to me that has always been a challenge for me. The difference between panic and urgency. Panic is a sudden overwhelming fear, with or without cause, that produces hysterical or irrational behavior, and that often spreads quickly through a group of persons. We have all seen what panic looks like. Panic has no sense of purpose. Panic makes us run away from the problem. Panic gives a sense of hopelessness. Panic says there is no way out. For example, I am claustrophobic. When I feel trapped, I panic.

On the other hand a sense of urgency is different. John Kotter, Harvard professor, stated that true urgency may sometimes involve moving fast. But the most important aspects of true urgency are relentlessness, steadiness and the purposeful pursuit of a goal while “continuously purging irrelevant activities to provide time for the important and to prevent burn-out.” Go back and read that again and let it sink in.

Kotter gives a few suggestions to organizations and leaders:

  1. Create a sense of urgency: he believes that organizations need a sense of urgency if they are going to change and be successful. I believe we need a culture of urgency. NOT PANIC. But urgency. We need a relentless, steady, purposeful culture that is pursuing our goals, purging irrelevant activities, and spending time on the important things.
  2. Team Members must behave with urgency every day. Anxiety, panic, or anger are bad responses – team members should transmit their urgency in meetings, emails and in everything else they do each day
  3. Look for the opportunities that are obscured by emerging crises. Fear can paralyze a business and prevent us from taking necessary action. A sense of urgency can carry us successfully through to success.
  4. Deal with the NoNos – those “relentless urgency-killers” who would rather that their complacent existence was left undisturbed. Basically, Kotter is saying that complacency is a feeling that a person has about his or her own behavior, about what he or she needs to do or not do. “This point is also extremely important, because it is possible to see problems and yet be astonishingly complacent because you do not feel that the problems require changes in your own actions. So, we become complacent and lose the sense of urgency.”

Panic makes things worse. Urgency should make things better. I hope you can see that our leadership team is communicating a sense of urgency. Let me be clear, we are not in panic mode. I refuse to panic at work or at home. I hope you see us focused on pursuing our goals. I hope you see us purging irrelevant activities which include expenses, etc. I hope you see our relentlessness and steadiness. I hope you see our sense of determination to achieve our goals.

My challenge to each of you is that you wake up each day and have a sense of urgency both at work and in your personal life. I challenge you to evaluate your surroundings and look for opportunities to drive revenue and to make a difference in your clients. Look for ways to be productive for yourself and for our company.  One key ingredient I know without a doubt you all have is talent unlike some of the singers in the last few weeks on American Idol. I know each of you have the talent for this business. So…

Don’t panic…but be urgent!

  • John Ball

    Thanks for this Brad. I twittered this same message to my friends and colleagues earlier today.

    There is a scene in the original Posieden Adventure, after the ship turns completely upside down in the middle of the biggest ocean on earth and people are literally falling from what was the floor to the ceiling while screaming at the top of their lungs about the damage and the ensuing threat. Gene Hackman jumps up and yells – "now, everyone, don't panic" before he leads them to safety – which of course takes the entire movie.

    We need more Gene Hackmans jumping up and reminding everyone not to panic.

  • Bill Mosby

    Nice little writeup on the subject. Kind of reminds me of my experience recently of stomping out one belatedly-discovered bug in my iPhone App just before it appeared in the App Store. Didn't panic that time, but I have all too frequently in times past.

  • Sound advice. Transmitting urgency without boiling over into anxiety/panic/anger is a challenge as many families face unprecedented (in their lifetimes) financial declines. The Mint data released today[1] was a good reminder how whole lifestyles have shifted, and it's easy to see that fear/frustration seep into the workplace. Maintaining steadiness and purging the irrelevant (even if "you've always done it that way") seem the best way to stay the course.


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  • One quote I try and bear in mind when I feel myself start to panic is “It May Look Like a Crisis, But It’s Only the End of An Illusion” which is “Rhonda’s First Revelation” from Gerald Weinberg’s book Secrets of Consulting

  • Thanks, Brad – I sent it to the entire Mashery team as well. Understanding the difference between panic and urgency – and embracing the latter while avoiding the former – is sine qua non if you're going to have a successful startup.

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