Founders, Separating the Urgent From the Important

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One of the most important jobs of a founder of startup business – well of any business is what I refer to as the process of separating the Merely Urgent from the Truly Important. Which is a statement that might require a bit of explanation.  So, in this column I want to talk about what I mean by that and why it matters.

First of all, let me point out that the phrasing is intentional. I phrase it that way for a couple of reasons.  The first is to point out that Urgent and Important are not, in fact, synonyms. The second reason is to point out that often dealing with the things that really matter in the life of a business and in the life of its founder – are often put aside in order to deal with the day-to-day issues that keep coming up and which must be dealt with in a timely fashion. 

Because of the constant parade of urgent items on their “to do” lists, founders may feel like they are not keeping up, that they are not moving their businesses forward, or worse, that the business is failing altogether. When things reach this stage, it is often well past the time when the real issue should have been identified and addressed.

The issue, usually, is that there has been no attempt to distinguish between issues that are Truly Important from those that are Merely Urgent.

This is because separating issues in this way is not a natural way of thinking. When an issue is urgent it has, by definition, become a priority. The issue must be dealt with because it must be dealt with Now.  Thus, as a founder, the urgent issues easily dominate your days and your “mindshare.” Because they cannot (or can no longer) be ignored they become the issues on which you spend your time.  This feels like an appropriate way to budget your time.  In fact, it is not.

That in itself is an issue because coming up with effective ways of budgeting their time is one of the first hurdles that new founders face as they grow their companies. 

Simply put, a lot of founders start out believing that their time and attention is, effectively, an infinite resource. By that I don’t mean that their infinite hours in a day. What I really mean is that the founder’s time is the one quantity over which an early-stage founder really feels they have complete control.

Pretty much all outer resources – particularly financial resources – are tightly constrained and those constraints are beyond the founder’s control. The one thing that it feels they can always find more of is their own time.  Until they can’t anymore.

Usually, this process happens gradually. I know that it has happened when founders begin saying that they are tired, or stressed, or that they feel there is just too much to do. Often, they will then say that they expect things to get better soon – once they get through this next funding round, or this next technical milestone, or this next conference. It almost never does get better. Unless they address the issue.

It is at this point that I suggest to many founders that they really need “professional help.” By this I do not mean counselling. I mean that they need to find someone who is detail-oriented and organized who can help them with the task of separating the Merely Urgent from the Truly Important.

Because many of the urgent issues that founders tend to be dealing with do not require their particular skills, or experience or judgement – or frankly even their level of authority – to deal with. Many of these tasks are repetitive or even routine tasks, usually they need to be completed with care and attention to detail, but they do not need to be completed by the founder themselves. 

The issue, honestly, is that many founders find these tasks to be, well chores. Take for instance, completing payroll, this is a task that must be done, and it must be done on time, it requires careful attention to ensure it gets done properly, but it does not require making any high-level decisions. Past a certain point it is the wrong job for founders to be doing.

But because jobs like this are not enjoyable to a lot of founders – and because other people depend on them being completed on time, founders will, at least, initially be loath to “offload” them on to someone else. They feel this would be an imposition and since their time is something they always have enough of, they should just go ahead and do those nasty little jobs themselves. Irritating, time-consuming jobs rather than imposing them on someone else.

When they do this, they are actually not doing around them any favors. Everyone around them, their employees, their investors and even their customers, consider the founder’s time to be the most valuable thing that he or she has to spend. Spending that valuable resource on jobs that could be done by someone else is not actually helping anyone, least of all the founder.

The other reality that founders need to embrace is that there are plenty of people in the world who not only enjoy those jobs which the founder dislikes, but they also have the skills and experience to be much better at them that than the founder ever would be. 

Trust me, one of the great joys of being a founder is finding people to work with who are really good at the jobs you don’t like to do.  But you have to realize that truth in order to enjoy it.

To be fair, though, hiring someone to take part of the urgent but routine part of the load is only part of the solution to this problem.  In the next column we’ll look at some other techniques for separating the merely urgent from the truly important so you can keep the focus where it needs to be.

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About Iain Christie

Founder and CEO at SideKickSixtyFive Consulting and host of the Terranauts podcast. Iain is a seasoned business executive with deep understanding of the space business and government procurement policy. Iain worked for 22 years at Neptec including as CEO. He was a VP at the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada, is a mentor at the Creative Destruction Lab and a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa's Telfer School of Management.

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