Urgent vs. Emergent

2022-04-06

Urgent vs. Emergent

For a while, I've been frustrated by inbound requests that claim the work that needs to be done is urgent. There's a variety of reasons, but the biggest one is that when I see that something is urgent, I react in a way I think is appropriate:

  • Stop what I'm doing
  • Immediately review the request and ask clarifying questions
  • Start some ground work on a solution while I wait on answers

After all, this task is urgent. It needs to be done as soon as possible. I was treating urgent things as if they were emergencies—I didn't want to end up being the roadblock that resulted in harm being done to our users, customers, or company. What I was really doing was treating urgent requests as emergencies.

Most of the time, however, the requestors themselves weren't matching the urgency in their requests with their responses. We work asynchronously, so delays in responses are absolutely normal, but for an urgent request I was expecting to have some quick synchronous discussion in order to build a solution as quickly as possible.

In an unrelated conversation with my sister-in-law, who is a nurse, I was introduced to a word that has helped me think through this issue: emergent. In a clinical context, this is the difference between going to an urgent care clinic and going to the emergency room. Some illnesses and injuries need to be treated soon, but aren't life-threatening and aren't likely to become life-threatening (as long as they are treated relatively soon).

In a more general context, Merriam-Webster gives us the following definition of emergent:

  • a: arising unexpectedly
  • b: calling for prompt action : URGENT

For triaging requests the first definition makes a critical difference—is the urgency in this task a result of circumstances that have arisen unexpectedly? If someone is asking me to drop everything and work on a task, that's what I'd expect. A natural disaster or political crisis require us to quickly pull some data that we couldn't anticipate the need for until now? Sure, that checks out. A deadline you've known about for a while is looming and you need something done quickly to meet it? That's urgent, but only because it was allowed to become urgent.

Matters of consequence

That all being said, if an urgent-but-not-emergent task arrives, it doesn't really matter that the urgency is a result of unfortunate planning. What matters at this point is what will happen if we don't get this done by the deadline? If it's not an emergency (the only time "as soon as humanly possible" should ever be allowed as a due date, in my opinion), then the urgency associated with this request should have a point in time after which there will be consequences.

There's a big difference between, "we need this done by the end of the day or else people won't get paid," and "we need this done as soon as possible or else...it will continue to not be done." The former is an urgent task requiring prompt action. The latter is an attempt to re-prioritize the backlog.

I've been making an effort to push back against the use of "urgent" in requests. Whenever I see it, I ask for a hard deadline and what the consequences are of not meeting that deadline. I also ask for team members in multiple timezones that know the domain-specific context surrounding the request so that I can have questions answered no matter what time it is (after all, if it's consequentially urgent then delays should be avoided). That's usually enough to downgrade the urgency of most requests, and helps me look past all the smoke to identify where the fires really are.