The tyranny of 'now'

CAPE COD AIR FORCE STATION, Mass. -- Be careful what you wish for.

George Bernard Shaw is famously quoted as saying, "There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart's desire. The other is to get it." Our modern colloquial version of the sentiment is expressed in the proverb, "Be careful what you wish for; you might get it."

In no aspect of our lives is this truer than in our roles as leaders and supervisors, especially in the direction we give our subordinates and teams. Our direction carries the weight of authority and, by virtue of its source, has the power to redirect, re-prioritize, correct course and even disrupt other important work.

There is no doubt that subordinates and teams should respond professionally and promptly to legal and moral direction from their leaders. However, in this age of technologically-enabled immediacy, what is in doubt is the increasing need for "now."

I call this the "tyranny of now": the increasingly common demand for immediate responses and action, where an otherwise dispassionate assessment might instead reveal a less urgent, less disruptive time frame for response. I call it tyranny because tyranny is defined as the arbitrary or unrestrained exercise of power. In this case, it is probably restraint that is lacking. Tyranny implies a degree of unjustness that could be simply unjustified rather than morally unjust.

"Now" has a high cost. Now tells teams to stop or defer other work. Now is inherently less efficient and consumes more resources than the same task with the same suspense date given sufficiently early to deconflict other work and ensure availability of key resources. Now often results in poor results because there is less time to gather and organize information, less time to develop and employ tools, less time to employ critical thinking, analyze the problem from different angles, and prepare an adequate or even excellent response.

Is now worth the cost? Sometimes, the answer will be obvious: secure the gate, take cover, evacuate, return fire, batten down the hatches. In those cases, the question of "now" answers itself. In less obvious circumstances, the authority and power of the leader to give authoritative direction entail a corollary obligation to examine and understand the costs and impacts of the direction. When do I need it, is it more important than other work in-progress, will the team sacrifice themselves, their families or their future capacity to meet the task? When I know the answers to these questions, I am better prepared to give direction that meets my intent and keeps faith with my team.

Now affects everyone; leaders are not immune. We may be driven by the now of a higher authority, by necessity, by a perceived need originating in a habit of immediacy or by our well-intentioned desire to portray our organizations as responsive. Our teams and subordinates often lack insight into the pressures leading to now tasks. Lacking this insight, they try to meet their leaders' requirements at the task level rather than the potentially more effective, efficient and resilient level of intent. Under the worst of circumstances, with a steady stream of other now tasks flowing at them, they will spend little time developing better processes, honing tools, and developing integrated, collaborative capacity.

Not every task needs an eight-step process or a comprehensive analysis. As Voltaire said, "The perfect" is often "the enemy of the good." However, when "now" is involved, particularly when the task is resource intensive, we owe our missions and teams a measure of deliberation to ensure the urgency is justified, the importance is valid and supports our strategic goals, and the method sufficient and efficient.

Leaders, start your engines of change: Choose your "nows" carefully.