The Eternal Battle Between Important & Urgent – Can be Solved

Do you often find yourself procrastinating on important, yet non-urgent matters in order to take care of the stuff that needs immediate attention? This all-too-common circumstance also takes place on a larger scale. Bengt Järrehult walks us though how to deal with the incremental and breakthrough projects at the same time

If you think of urgent matters (read short term incremental upgrades) versus important matters (read long term radical or breakthrough innovation) –  you and I both know that urgent matters are always taken care of first. Not to worry – there is a way out of this dilemma.

Imagine that of the 40 hours available in a week, you put 30 of them into things that are operative (lower left corner). Ideally you would put the rest into the upper left, strategic corner – but you usually don’t. Stephen Covey, the author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People stated this behavior as a common cause of some irregularities in modern companies. Instead, you usually choose (as in a study of ~100 employees in my company, where we got a 92% confirmation of this) to allocate the remaining 10 hours into the reactive corner (bottom right) prior to the strategic corner due to our culture, our incentive system and other behavior patterns.

It is hard to skip all of the urgent and unimportant work, but we have to leave some resources for the non-urgent and important matters. Let’s say we leave 15% of all resources (6 of the 40 hours) for non- urgent, but important jobs. This looks like a fair deal, but what happens in reality is that when push comes to shove – urgent ALWAYS wins over important. This means that if a single person is told to have a 85/15 split of urgent/non-urgent jobs, this will turn into 100/0 when something urgent pops up – and it always does. The long term, non-urgent activities are constantly disturbed.

The best solution is to create what is called an ambidextrous structure, meaning that we can handle both things – but we semi-separate the activities, still keeping within the same organization (if we fully separate the activities we get an alienation and create an inability for the line organization to accept what comes out of the other part). This allows for maintaining focus on both kinds of activities and is what we now plan to do in the incubator, the venture group, we have built up within my company. There we have dedicated people spending ALL of their time (for a limited period of time) with the non-urgent but important matters. use these incubators to foster breakthrough innovation. There will usually be a creative tension between the 2 parts – but both are needed and they are dependent on each other, similar to how teenagers and adults are dependent on each other for the longevity of the family.

We need incubators in order to really be able to focus on non-urgent but important initiatives. These initiatives need to be semi-separated from the day-to-day business, but still connected having the same and somewhat squint-eyed top manager (as she/he needs to focus on 2 areas simultaneously), communicating constantly – because they need each other. On top of this we also need Accelerators – but that is the topic of another blog…

By Bengt Järrehult

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About the author


Bengt Järrehult is Fellow Scientist Innovation at SCA, a global hygiene products and paper company. He is also adjunct professor and visiting professor resp. at 2 departments of Lund University in Sweden. He is an avid reader of and presenter on the topics of innovation, especially on breakthrough innovation and the psychological hurdles that exist to achieve this, hurdles that we may or may not be aware of. He is of the opinion that most companies more or less know what to do to become more innovative. What they don’t know is what really hinders them from doing these measures…

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