Beware the Emergency Excuse: Urgent Work, Multi-Competency, and Core Responsibility

Startups and big companies probably experience emergencies at about the same rate. The difference is in how those emergencies feel.

Big companies have complex structures to reduce risk and absorb the impact of catastrophes. They have policies and escalation paths and documented processes and standard operating procedures.

Most small companies have some pluck twenty-somethings with computers.

If you’re one of those twenty-somethings, one of the most powerful ways you can contribute value to your company is by learning how to neutralize emergencies. This urgent work requires fast reaction and multi-competency – stepping out of your core work responsibility area to hold the line where it’s weakest. I’ve frequently traded my own marketing and communications hat for a support hat, product hat, operations hat, or even office manager hat.

But this “emergency responder” skill set can also be a weakness. If you are constantly dealing with urgent work at the weak areas of your company, you may be neglecting to focus on 1) your own areas of strength and 2) your core area of responsibility. I’ve seen my own important-but-not-urgent work suffer as I get drawn into the urgent stuff, so this hits close to home.

Sometimes you do have to exercise selective neglect. Sometimes emergencies stretch you too thin. Fair enough. But if emergency response means you are leaving your own part of the line weaker than it needs to be, you have a real problem on your hands. And in the end, emergencies are not good excuses.

The real problem of the emergency excuse (often an excuse you give to yourself) becomes apparent when you start to scale out of startup mode. As your company adds more hands, it’s going to start being better prepared against the inevitable business storms. When that time comes, you have to be ready to hang up your “emergency first-responder” hat and get back into the game of your important-but-not-urgent work – your core responsibility, whether it’s marketing or sales or engineering or operations. You don’t want to find yourself weak or behind just as scaling is starting up.

Don’t let the emergency be an excuse to not take ownership of what you’ll need to do when the emergency is over. Keep doing the important-but-not-urgent work, even if you have to make time. Keep learning and driving some part of yourself toward specialization even when you’re fighting fires at work. Remember that your relief is coming soon, and soon enough they’ll be looking to you to to get back to doing what you should do best.

Photo by Victoria Heath on Unsplash

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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