In the midst of starting up a business, there are always more tasks to do than there are hands to do them. Fact of life, nature of the beast, but hey, that’s what we all signed up for at the door. There are moments when roles are well defined, and those roles better drive tasks to be done – business as usual. And then there are moments when roles are completely irrelevant: a task that is so very urgent that structure is dropped in a scrambled effort to get it done – business as a fire drill. And in the midst of all this there is the constant creative tension between pressure (motivation) and temperature (urgency) within the organization.
Most mornings, I arrive at the office and set a daily task list for myself, determining which tasks form my priorities – a judgement based on the project priorities that we track to our objectives and business plan. The other day, I compiled my task list and saw twenty-five separate items on the page, each screaming back at me. A few were personal projects. Some were contributions to external deliverables in collaboration with team members. Others were management oversight tasks requiring my attention to assist in strategic direction and execution.
I looked at this list and I was flummoxed. Where to begin? By lunchtime, I had completed two tasks, and was working on the third. Over to my office came one of my colleagues looking for feedback and input on a deliverable we were trying to complete. I wasn’t yet close to finished. My colleague tried to reason with me as to why this project was of the highest possible priority. And while his reasoning was sound, it resonated as much as anything else in my notes that day.
I became frustrated. It felt as if nothing was getting done. At. A. Stand. Still. At that point, my only motivation was trying to reset in a quiet place. I went out of the office to clear my mind, grabbed myself a cup of coffee and then closed my normally “door-always- open” office and settled in. I reconciled the urgent task with my own plans for the day and proceeded over the next two hours to get my colleague’s request returned as well as complete almost all other items on my list that day. That begs the question: how did an overwhelming task list become more manageable?
I have learned, as a worker and as a manager, that there is a careful and delicate relationship between motivation, urgency, and productivity, very much akin to the relationship between temperature, pressure, and the states of matter (Figure 1):
State of matter = f(temperature, pressure), where state of matter can be solid, liquid, or gas
So to is…
Productivity = f(urgency, motivation), where productivity can be stalled, fluid, or erratic
With the right combination of motivation and urgency, one will engage in a more fluid and sensible work day. Too much pressure, and productivity will stall as anxiety’s grip freezes creativity and vision. Too fierce a fire, and one would drop other things in an effort to put the fire out, with limited productivity and with limited expectations.
In the case I describe above, my day was slipping into a “solid phase” and productivity was stalling badly. The balance of both motivation and urgency was skewed and I was getting locked up. When I left the office, and found that the pressure was diminished, I was able to determine what my urgencies were to be, and as a result, I got things done.
Sometimes when this functional balance swings too wildly, a worker’s output will be materially and consequentially affected. A great worker will adjust on their own to find that fluid balance that maximizes personal productivity. A good manager will keep their feelers out, sensing when this balance is off within the team, and will help adjust back to the fluid ideal state.
Cyclical has ambitious objectives aligned with a focused purpose and set of goals. Our team is aligned on this purpose and all of its underpinnings. This foundation makes for an effort full and rich in things to do for all involved. When our productivity is fluid, and the combination of urgency and motivation is balanced, we work like a well-oiled machine. When the balance is off, we do what we must to adjust back to an ideal state working together to either ensure we can meet our business needs, or to fight any fires that may come our way, or even do both at the same time. One must come to expect this ebb and flow in motivation and urgency, and always ride – or sometimes fight - the waves towards an ideal fluid-productive state.
Then again, that’s just business as usual.