Important Versus Urgent

There are often conflicting priorities that arise from the various business, technology, marketing, manufacturing, IP and HR viewpoints. A way to reconcile this confusion is by using Stephen Covey’s “The seven habits of highly effective people” method of time management. In his work, Stephen Covey, segmented all the tasks that a person should do in a week into four quadrants. These are shown in the “Important Versus Urgent” figure. His method can be adapted to project management by taking all the projects that an organization has in front of it and mapping them on the same type of matrix.

The two main criteria on which you evaluate projects are their urgency and importance. Urgent activities require immediate attention. Important ones contribute to the organization’s mission, values and goals long-term. You want to focus most of your energy and activities those activities that are important and but not urgent, i.e. Quadrant 2. According to Covey for personal work, Quadrant 2 includes relationship building, recognizing new opportunities, planning, and prevention. For organizations that are undergoing new product and service innovations, Quadrant 2 is often the strategic projects aimed at changing the industry, or adapting to long-term industry environmental factors. For organizations, urgent and important things tend to be crises related to current product problems and regulatory issues. Not important and urgent projects are often requests coming from top management for their understanding of what’s going on. The busywork in Quadrant 4 often relates to in-process metrics and activities required by top management. Dividing up an R&D organization’s time and activities on this matrix often shows that there is too much work going into Quadrants 1, 3 and 4 as opposed to Quadrant 2.

It is not easy however to just simply decide to focus more energy on Quadrant 2. When looking at the capabilities of an organization, what senior innovation management leaders find is that they don’t always have the mental processing capabilities present in their organization’s personnel to deploy them all on Quadrant 2 activities. There are often not enough high-thinking-level personnel to go around. These constraint resources are often overburdened if senior management isn’t careful. This is especially true for organizations that need to change because of industry or environmental conditions. Senior managers are often slow to make the personnel changes needed to undertake these activities. The other problem with Quadrant 2 work is that it is hard mental work. It requires both mental and physical effort and discipline. Again most people and many senior managers do not have the mental capability themselves to guide an organization in a way that they spend most of the resources time in Quadrant 2 activities. Instead they find that they often ask the organization to do things important to themselves, which are really Quadrant 3 and 4 activities.