Why you Need a Sense of Urgency in Product

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When I was doing my basic training in the military one of the things our instructors continually stressed was a sense of urgency. Nothing was to be rushed, but equally, nothing was to be done at a leisurely pace either. No need to take five minutes to shower when you are just as clean after three minutes.

Similarly, cultivating a sense of urgency within product teams is key to driving value creation from the team. As soon as they lose that sense of urgency the value they deliver falls dramatically – often to zero.

A sense of urgency in product teams in vitally important for the continued success of a product.

A sense of urgency creates a focus on the delivery of value. Without this sense of urgency teams lose focus and become exercises in technical purity, design purity, featuritis, or, even worse, an unholy combination of all three.

Keep it About the Product, not the Egos

Without this sense of urgency teams will focus on themselves and not on delivering value to the end customer. Suddenly using the “right” technology or the “right” design paradigm becomes more important than improving the product so that the user gets more value from it. Teams start confusing how a solution is delivered with the value of the solution itself to the end user.

When the sense of urgency is lost, the product becomes about the team; in fact, the product becomes about the egos of the individuals within the team, rather than about the user problem that the product is meant to solve.

A team with a sense of urgency will not try to build the all-singing, all-dancing version of a new improvement but will instead break it up into iterations. This means that not only does the user gain value sooner, but also that the team can learn from users and challenge assumptions about the improvement.

Team members with a sense of urgency don’t think about what they would like to do but instead always ask themselves:

how will this deliver value to our users?

Will this new technology really deliver an increase in value?

Will this design make a difference overall to the value the user derives from the product?

Sometimes the answer will be yes to these questions, but it’s more likely that the answer will be no. A team with a sense of urgency will then move on to something else rather than continue with something that isn’t delivering value.

Deliver Regular Improvements

A sense of urgency will see the team focused on delivering regular value improvements to their users, even if they are modest. At the same time they won’t be afraid to tackle large-scale changes when it can be shown that these changes will deliver a lot of value for users.

A sense of urgency is not about chucking features out the door to give the illusion of delivering value to users. The sense of urgency in product management is not death marches nor build-fast-and-break-things. It is about making sure things take the time they need without taking any more time than they need. It is about making sure you are doing the right things in the most effective manner.

Phrases like “we have to do it right” and “we are future-proofing it” are red flags that your product team has lost the sense of urgency.

Is your team throwing features out the door and calling it progress? Another red flag.

Reclaiming Urgency

What can you do if your product team has lost that sense of urgency? It is hard – but not impossible – to retrieve it. The starting point is to question why you’re doing what you do. Start asking (again) “Why are we building x? Why are we testing y? What problem are we solving in doing this?” When those questions are not answered satisfactorily or even at all, then you must stop. Stop the coding/building. Stop the testing and drop it.

Go on to something where you can answer the question: “What problem are we solving in doing this?

You’ll have to do this many times and provide the space for everyone on the product team to do it too. It will be hard and as a product leader you need to provide the air cover and mentoring to allow the team to work through it.

As you do this, have the whole team go back and review historical and current customer feedback. If you don’t already have a system that allows the team to monitor and review customer feedback, then everyone will need to sit down and go through all feedback thoroughly. If there is continuous feedback monitoring, then as product leader you need to emphasise that this feedback must be reviewed continually and kept front of mind by the team.

You want the customers’ problems to begin searing themselves into the hearts and minds of everyone on the team. Once this happens that sense of urgency will flow back as the focus shifts from the team to the users.

Great products are built by teams with a sense of urgency. All of the most effective teams I’ve worked on have had that sense of urgency. The outside world can always see how a team’s behaviour and interactions change once they lose that sense of urgency.

Make sure your team has a sense of urgency in their product management and watch the magic happen.

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  • Jerell B Lee

    Great article! I really do believe that having a sense of urgency and understanding that the team has the power to affect the lives of the end user is very important.

    Do you ever find that teams tend to develop a sense of urgency that is crippling due to lack of resources or vision?

    I feel that some teams find it difficult to sustain the sense of urgency and end up building just to build, or get stuck in the weeds of blindly thinking they are building products that bring value to users, without gathering feedback directly from the users they are building the products for.

    Would also love to know your thoughts on how to manage that sense of urgency to be sustainable for a company in the process of scaling.

    Again, awesome article. Thanks for sharing!

  • Prasanna Jena

    Great and really timely article on the need for an innate sense of urgency..one callout though – the best outcome is when user goals are met timely and the solution is designed the right way..if there are shortcuts taken and a hacky solution is put together, then you end up expending more effort down the line to fix it and thus losing out on delivering value to the customer…it really comes down to what your product goals ? Do you want to do a quick and dirty pilot or do you want to improve an existing product ? defining the MVP very crisply is critical…

  • zacharias

    While I don’t disagree with any of the points in the article, it’s important to note that phrases like “we need to do it the right way” might not be indicating a *lack*, but *too much* sense of urgency.

    When pressure gets too high things get messy, and developers feel themselves losing control. Losing the ability to continue delivering in the same pace. The very reasonable and probably correct response in that case is to say. “Hold up, we need to get organized here. We need to start doing things right”.

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