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Today's Emergency; Tomorrow's Task

Human beings have the interesting habit of believing that much of what they are dealing with is an emergency and, as a result, needs immediate attention. Ironically, this trait is caused by ancient imperatives and modern communication.

When day-to-day survival of man depended on acting quickly--you cannot wait to determine the intent of a charging animal--you acted quickly. Indeed an attacking saber tooth is an emergency that requires an immediate response. And of course, if it turns out that the presumed tiger was the family dog, you have lost nothing by shimmying up a tree to escape. When physical danger lurked close by, ancient man had to respond quickly. Pop science show after pop science podcast talks about the “lizard brain” or the ameglyda that still drives the flight or fight response of man. This ancient impulse convinces us that many of the tasks presented to us are emergencies that need our immediate attention.

This impulse is amplified by modern communication. Not too long ago, much professional communication was accomplished by letter writing. The letter spent a few days in the mail, the receiver spent a few days drafting a response and the response spent a few days in the mail. Responses to mailed questions often took a couple of weeks to be received. People learnt to be patient.

Then email reared its ugly head. Communications became instantaneous. It became the expectation in many companies that no email should go unanswered for longer than 24 hours. “Better” performers answered within minutes. All of sudden, we were responding instantly and each email could be perceived as a charging tiger.

In actuality, there are very few real emergencies in today’s workplace. Almost anything can wait a day or two for a response, and often the wait helps the issue be addressed more rationally. (Here is your permission to put off until tomorrow what you can do today.)

I recall when Duke School was in the midst of a building project and we discovered the engineer’s drawing failed to connect two water pipes that indeed needed to be connected. Unfortunately, the mistake was compounded because it was found after the trenches for the pipes had been filled and landscaping was done on top of it. My first reaction was to call the engineer immediately and belligerently demand a full refund as this was an emergency that needed to be addressed immediately.

Cooler heads suggested I wait for the next construction status meeting in three days. At the status meeting, the issue was raised. I was calm while the engineer initially denied responsibility. The architect and general contractor attended the status meeting and both allowed that the engineer failed in this instance and needed to fix the problem on his dime. He quickly agreed and the project was completed on time and on budget (well almost on budget).

My delay in addressing the problem led to a better result. Most importantly, in hindsight, the lack of pipe connection was not an emergency. The project was not to be completed for a number of weeks yet. There was plenty of time to address the issue. And it was better addressed with cool heads in the appropriate setting.

A piece of advice that a seasoned head gave me when I was just starting is pertinent. He mentioned that when he went home on the weekend, there were four or five emergencies on his desk that he needed to deal with immediately on Monday morning. Interestingly, when he got to work on Monday, most of those emergencies seemed less urgent. Not less important, just less urgent.


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