I got a call from a client today about a problem with a direct report. Here’s the situation.
Bob, owner of a 25-person civil engineering firm, needs Joshua, a senior project manager, to drop what he (Joshua) is doing and call Marty at Topsoil Construction. It’s urgent—Marty has some concerns that need to be addressed right away. Topsoil is a major client, worth at least $500,000 of business each year. They also are a long-time, repeat client—an A-level client without a doubt.
Bob went by Joshua’s office at 8 a.m. today and explained the situation. Joshua said he would get on it.
At noon, Bob checked back in with Joshua, expecting to hear how the call went and that problems were resolved. Joshua said he hadn’t called yet and would get to it probably around 4 p.m.
Bob is furious. “What do I have to do to get Joshua to jump when I say ‘jump’? You know what I mean—get a sense of urgency about something.”
Insight into Joshua’s world
Joshua is a list-maker. Every morning he reviews yesterday’s list to make sure everything got done. Then he makes a to-do list for today. The items are numbered 1 through whatever. Then Joshua works his list. He does No. 1 until it’s done, and he can check it off. Then he moves to No.2, and so on.
Unfortunately, Bob didn’t get to Joshua before Joshua made today’s to-do list. So when Bob told Joshua to call Marty, Marty got added to today’s list. Marty is now No. 7 on what was a six-item list.
I joke that if the office were on fire and Bob yelled to evacuate, Joshua would keep working his list until he got to “No. 10–evacuate burning building.” The building could burn down around him—he’s only on No. 7 on his list.
Meticulous list-makers tend to be very efficient with their time until something unexpected pops up, demanding their immediate attention. Having to change their priorities and change them now throws folks like Joshua off track. They lose their concentration, and it takes them a long time to get it back. It also stresses them, because they are forced to switch gears quickly, which wasn’t part of the plan.
What can Bob and Joshua do?
Bob needs to recognize Joshua’s need to work his list. But emergencies do come up that need to move to the top of the list. Here are some ways to ease the situation.
- Joshua can schedule planned crises time, maybe as No. 2 or 3 on his list. If no crisis comes up, he can check that off his to-do list and move to the next item. Some folks like Joshua may need to schedule “crises time” in the morning, right after lunch, and last hour of the day. That way, they will be able to adapt.
- When a crisis comes up and Bob needs Joshua to act now, Bob needs to give Joshua perspective on why now. What’s at risk if nothing is done right this moment?
- Bob can ask Joshua what he is working on that can be put off until later, so that Joshua can call Marty now. I have found that a lot of Joshua types often are working ahead of schedule; they are less likely than others to do things at the last minute.
- Bob can explain how Joshua’s behavior comes across. Others may perceive Joshua as intractable, stubborn, dense, not driven, having no sense of urgency. If Joshua can become more flexible, and he can, others will credit him for his ability to respond in a crisis.
Remember: Numbers may drive the business, but people drive the numbers.
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