The Misfortunes of Uninformed Urgency, 2040’s Ideas and Innovations Newsletter, Issue 159

Kevin Novak
10 min readMay 9, 2024

Issue 159, May 9, 2024

We write often and passionately about the sense of urgency organizations should feel as they manage disruptive marketplaces, unpredictable consumer trends, and geopolitical instability. Coupled with urgency are our mantras about market orientation, shared purpose, and critical thinking. We could stop right there but we’re not going to! We don’t want our advocation about modern leadership and organizational strategies to become platitudes and buzzwords. In that spirit, we’re taking a fresh look at urgency and the nuanced meaning of “informed” urgency.

It may sound like a contradiction, but informed urgency is critical to adapting and transforming in today’s dynamic marketplace. First off, let’s not confuse urgency with speed. Urgency is necessity, immediacy, and insistence. And informed urgency, therefore, is a knowledge-based necessity. We have written about the value of reflective decision-making and strategic re-think, both as foundational practices and as the pillars of informed urgency in organizational management. So, to help you understand and incorporate informed urgency into your practice, let’s give you some context on how a lack of informed urgency can play out.

We offer the following case study as an opportunity to leverage your own critical thinking skills to reveal where you think knowledge is needed, identify why understanding the issues is at cross purposes in the organization, and how the right context can result in decisions and actions that are both informed and urgent.

Panic Mode

A mid-sized B2B media organization has seen its database of potential subscribers erode over the past three years. At first, the marketing team attributed the losses to the pandemic and the overload of digital feeds and news sources. But the pattern has persisted three years after the pandemic ended. The brand is focused on delivering insights for top-level retail executives. That industry has experienced a perfect storm of consolidation, bankruptcies, and having to transform itself from a legacy in-store operation to a seamless omnichannel platform — all in fewer than five years. In addition to subscriber issues, the brand’s advertising base has shifted from consulting firms and huge thought leadership SaaS organizations to a very long tail of tech startups desperate for a toehold with retail CEOs who are under pressure to rebuild and reimagine their businesses.

To top it off, the media brand’s advisory board is filled with older CEOs and retired industry icons who no longer reflect the retail industry at large. Part of the problem is that the CEO of the media brand is aging out of relevancy with both her new digital media platform and personal contacts with the new startups and D2C leaders who are half her age. Experience is invaluable but when experience lacks correlation to currency in today’s market dynamism, shifts in consumer consumption, and new trends in digital interactions, the gaps ensure a pervasive and impactful disconnect.

This is a real-life case of urgency from every angle: loss of subscribers, advertiser pressure to deliver qualified leads and an outdated long-in-the-tooth advisory board. The media CEO is facing a blunt reality that without revenue growth, the brand will soon become insolvent. In a panic, she hired a friend who teaches retail operations theory at a university to become her strategic advisor to help re-right the business. Relishing in his newfound position, the new strategy lead decides to hire a consultant to transition the media brand’s controlled circulation to a paid model. He found a circulation expert through Google search and brought her in to save the day. Thousands of dollars later, the consultant, who as it turns out had a practice in building D2C subscriptions for companies like Peloton (itself barely holding on above the water line), repurposed her dashboard model for the media brand to monitor subscription efforts and deliver real-time P/L reports.

At the same time, the sales team was told to immediately raise $350,000 worth of business however they possibly can do to help bridge the near-term operational costs deficit. Marketing was asked to identify new board members without a plan for a reframed board purpose and editorial was mandated to reduce its writers’ fees and cut back on graphic design. Operations was told to save on paid social media campaigns. HR was told to cut staff. And circulation was forced to buy lists of potential subscribers who were levels down from the core C-suite subscriber base as a mechanism to buffer the subscriber exodus.

Without informed urgency, current subscribers were never even surveyed to see if they would pony up to pay for a subscription. And internally, without an informed plan, teams were deployed independently in panic moves to find short-term fixes. And no one was talking to each other.

Anyone detached from this actual situation could look at this urgency-triggered mess and see how it happened in the first place. Urgency was misunderstood as panic-induced speed for short-term solutions with the unintended result of throwing the brand into chaos.

The case study aside, so many real-life situations like this actually happen. The lack of informed urgency is impressive in its predictable negative consequences.

Today’s Urgent Hot Mess: AI

Here is some additional context that might resonate with any organization, team or leader seeking to adapt new trends. Most, if not all organizations are feeling a sense of urgency to adopt some form of AI. Note we stated urgency not “informed” urgency. The myriad of applications of AI seems to be cloudy at best and the expected results remain elusive.

This past week Oracle renewed its database of products to broadcast to the market that its offerings are ready and able to be incorporated into commercial or client-developed AI. So, Oracle is ready to ride the wave of AI demand but seems to be punting the value of a client’s investment back onto the client.

And every other tech-based organization is developing or snapping up AI startups and/or paying inflated salaries to recruit the limited talent that has the qualifications to position themselves competitively.

Most activity seems to be the result of knee-jerk decisions. Almost as if it is a repetitive Black Friday with the horde waiting in line for the doors to open to grab any of the products on sale, simply because they are getting there first. The products may not fit or may not work with the products they already own, but at least they have a deal.

AI urgency is also taking shape as those AI startups experiment without concern for human agency or recognition of the consequences. “Time to jump, we can think later” seems to be the new mantra. AI facsimiles are now “posing” as models for online apparel brand shopping sites. AI twins are now available for focus groups, programmed to think and act like current or potential customers. AI doppelgangers have been created to track the progress of fatal diseases as clinical trial participants.

The Wall Street Journal recently reports, “AI systems can take in data on a person’s individual characteristics — such as appearance, shopping preferences, and health profile — then predict how they would look in an item of clothing, how they would answer a question or be affected by a disease.” The bottom line: digital people cut costs. Keeping expenses down pleases the stock market, ensures the stock price remains stable or grows, and provides the appearance of being forward-thinking. Urgent movement, but without consideration of the consequences.

AI Unleashed

Are you seeing the instability of uninformed urgency? Here is another use case for AI that can boggle your mind. Dan Kraemer, adjunct professor of growth strategy and innovation at Northwestern has created IACollaborative to use Gen AI as a foresight research tool to shape the future. He writes on LinkedIn that he’s “lucky to get a front-row seat to retailers’ moonshot ideas for AI deployments. Retailers come to us to brainstorm and create AI-enabled products and services that won’t just deliver new revenue and reduce costs, but instead will fully transform the customer experience. They don’t want to wait a few years; they want to deploy game-changing AI frameworks today.” You could argue that this is either informed urgency or a strategy of last resort for retailers in distress.

IACollaborative has a use case of AI to systematically frame out a store for a Gen Z couple planning to have a family. Any analog ideation group would love to tackle this challenge. The GenAI approach is to create the store based on a complex, inter-related set of prompts, The result is a full-blown store of the future with an operational business strategy, recommendations for locations, description of merchandise inventories, store design, marketing campaigns, advertising promotions, and a complete ecommerce website. And in a grand finale, GenAI created customer avatars who described how they would shop the store. This metaverse environment serves as a comprehensive solution including a virtual focus group, design model, business plan, and marketing research to build a business in real life. Remember how the skeptics played a vital role in Ancient Greece? We just have to ask will this work in real life.

So, it seems that everyone wants to be AI-ready, matching the hype, without being informed as to how the tech may apply. Warren Buffet recently stated, “It (AI) has enormous potential for good and enormous potential for harm. And I just don’t know how that plays out,” None of us really does. The sense of urgency to glom onto AI without context, strategic re-think, and being reflective, thoughtful, and informed is destined to be a death march to the future.

Urgency Versus Deliberation

The business of leadership strategy consulting is paved with conflicting approaches to managing our high-velocity dynamic marketplace. For everyone pushing for urgency, there is an equal number of experts advising deliberation. Lee Peters, a startup consultant, has distilled the debate into a set of simple pros and cons.

The pros for urgency list competitive advantage, customer satisfaction, agility, and motivation (“motivating employees to work efficiently and prioritize tasks effectively, leading to increased productivity and performance”). The cons, on the other hand, cite rushed decisions, stress, burnout, neglect of strategic planning, and overlooked opportunities. He explains, “Many leaders may feel that they have a strong process in place to mitigate risks and balance urgency with planning.” But the flip side is another set of pros for considered deliberation.

The pros of deliberation are better decision-making, risk mitigation, resource optimization, and long-term success. The cons? Missed opportunities, slow response — “potentially causing reputational damage or loss of competitive advantage,” inefficiency, and responding to market dynamics that could make decisions obsolete by the time they are made.

He adds, “By recognizing when to act swiftly and when to take a step back to assess the situation, businesses can navigate challenges more effectively and position themselves for long-term success. Ultimately, success lies in finding the optimal tempo that aligns with the unique needs and circumstances of each organization and the markets in which they operate.”

Tactics for Informed Urgency

We have created a highly curated five-step matrix for implementing informed urgency. This approach is the basis for transformation, not a concrete roadmap, and therefore intended to guide, not dictate. It is by no means comprehensive, but these five steps cannot be excluded from a shift to be both urgent and informed.

1. Create a strategy that reflects your particular market orientation and shared purpose. I.e., don’t borrow someone else’s success and expect it to work. Don’t jump on the hype without understanding if there is direct application and potential results.

2. Try to avoid short-term solutions. Knee-jerk actions and decisions (typically reactive not proactive) may respond to a current issue or event but come with consequences in the longer term. Panic-driven decisions are not sustainable, let alone intelligent.

3. Be aware of any inherent biases (i.e., assuming the strategy and intent are universally understood) and be mindful that any new strategy will fail without the buy-in of all stakeholders. And that requires empathetic communication.

4. Use critical thinking, to become informed in making critical decisions. Seek out the relevant information, data, and research you need. Identify obstacles, opportunities, and outcomes that are fact-based and informed.

5. Create internal teams as champions to advocate transformational efforts who understand the need for informed urgency, not knee-jerk actions.

An Informed Strategy

At 2040 we work with clients to integrate informed urgency into their organizational strategies and operations. This mindset combines all the principles of organizational transformation in addressing our new normal marketplace of unexpected consequences. We can also safely say that many organizations do not feel any sense of urgency, confident that they have anticipated sales, marketing, and customer shifts.

However, we’ve been through the wars and can assure you informed urgency is a strategy that transcends all others. After all, who would have anticipated in less than a year that GenAI focus groups would be available to vet your business decisions, AI-generated customer avatars would be on hand to lead your product development, and GenAI would be creating your event agendas and content as well as marketing your products and services to your real-life customers and clients. If we live in a world that has evolved from “not your grandfather’s Buick,” it is definitely now your mother’s board room.

Explore this issue and all past issues on 2040’s Website or via our Substack Newsletter.

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Kevin Novak

4X webby winner, CEO and Chief Strategy Officer @2040 Digital (www.2040digital.com), IADAS Member, Speaker, Author, Science Nut