Why your team lacks urgency: 20+ reasons they miss deadlines

Written by: Karl Sakas

Frustrated that her employees were taking forever to complete work, an agency owner asked, “How can I create a sense of urgency and responsibility in my employees? We’ve promised a timeline to the client—but often, employees just don’t seem to get it.”

A seemingly simple question—yet it’s a complicated problem to solve. Why? Because there are lots of potential root causes. The right solution will depend on which root cause(s) are in play.

Fortunately, you can organize the root causes into three categories: Desire, Competence, and Capacity. Knowing those categories helps you find the right answer(s) faster.

After highlighting those three categories, we’ll review 20+ potential root causes if you’re facing a similar “low urgency” problem with your team.

Spoiler alert: If you frequently feel the need to “create urgency” for your team, it might partly be your fault based on earlier choices you made.

Deadlines require Desire, Competence, and Capacity

If something isn’t getting done, you’re likely missing something: Desire, Competence, and/or Capacity. You need all three to complete a task, project, or larger initiative:

  1. Desire (willingness to do it),
  2. Competence (understanding of how to do it right), and
  3. Capacity (time to complete the task properly).

As you assess the “Why aren’t they meeting deadlines?” problem at your agency, consider how the 20+ clues fit into at least one of those three factors. Let’s dig deeper!

Why your team keeps missing deadlines: 20+ root causes on lack of urgency

If you feel you need to create urgency because your team isn’t meeting deadlines, the problem might be something else. In fact, it’s likely one or more of the following points. Here, “they” = a Subject Matter Expert (SME) or other team member responsible for completing a deliverable by a certain deadline.

  1. The Subject Matter Expert (SME) didn’t know the deadline. [Competence]
  2. They knew the deadline… but forgot (and no one reminded them). [Competence+Capacity]
  3. No one clearly assigned them the task… so they didn’t know they were supposed to even complete it. [Desire+Capacity]
  4. The PM hasn’t lined-up the pieces in advance, to ensure inputs are ready when Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) need them. [Capacity]
  5. SMEs are waiting on something else to be done before they start… and haven’t told the PM they’re waiting. [Competence+Capacity]
  6. SMEs don’t understand that others are waiting for them, and they haven’t managed the PM’s expectations about when they’ll be done. [Competence]
  7. SMEs didn’t realize they were unlikely to meet the deadline, due to lack of experience in the work assigned. [Competence]
  8. Team members didn’t feel “safe” telling you (or the PM) they were unlikely to complete the work by the deadline, so they said nothing… and hoped for the best. [Desire+Competence]
  9. No one told them how many hours the task would likely take, so they don’t realize they’re spending too long on the task. [Competence+Capacity]
  10. No one told them the level of quality the client (and budget) required, and the SME is polishing the deliverable to be nicer than anyone expected (or paid for). [Competence+Capacity]
  11. The SME doesn’t have a naturally high sense of urgency, resulting in their working on things slower than the rest of the team. [Desire+Competence]
  12. They’re competent, but the task proved to be more complicated than anyone realized, and they’re struggling to complete the expanded workload. [Capacity]
  13. There were no interim check-ins, so they didn’t realize it would be harder until later in the process. [Desire+Competence+Capacity]
  14. They’re stuck, and they don’t realize a coworker could help them fix the problem. [Competence]
  15. They’re stuck, and don’t know where to look online to find solutions. [Competence+Capacity]
  16. The salesperson and/or Account Manager (AM) over-promised what was possible, and your SMEs are trying to clean up the mess.[Competence+Capacity]
  17. The AM (or an SME) said “yes” to scope creep without getting additional budget… and now the agency’s committed to do the extra work for free. [Competence+Capacity]
  18. The SME or PM likes fighting fires, so they intentionally (or perhaps unintentionally) let things go to the last minute so they can “save the day.” [Desire]
  19. Employees feel pressure to complete everything within the assigned budget… but if they can’t, they feel pressure to keep working without logging more time (and no one’s budgeted for that overrun). [Desire+Capacity]
  20. They’ve been late before, and there were no negative consequences… so they assume you don’t care about timeliness. [Desire]
  21. You’ve accidentally created incentives for them to finish things slower rather than faster. [Desire]
  22. Your interview process didn’t screen for urgency and/or conscientiousness… and so no one on your team has a sense of urgency or conscientiousness. (This is possible but unlikely.) [Desire]

What would you add to the list of root causes for what looks like an “urgency” problem? I bet you can think of at least a few more possibilities.

Be careful—don’t automatically blame your team. In my experience advising hundreds of agencies, you may be part of the problem as the agency leader. Why? Read on!

Consider your role in the “create urgency” problem

As the agency owner, you set the agenda for where people focus and how they work. For better and for worse, you are the “dictator” of your agency.

Story: The over-promising agency owner

A couple years ago, an agency owner asked me to speak with his managerial team about why things weren’t getting done on time. I dug into root cause(s) and discovered a surprise. The owner was the primary reason the team missed deadlines.

Why? Because he’d overpromise timelines to prospective clients, push the team to work long hours, and never adjust his future promises to reflect reality. (I also learned further ethical concerns… and he’s no longer a client.)

Next steps: Consider solutions at your own agency

As you review the clues (starting from the list above of 20+ root causes), ask yourself: “Are my decisions inadvertently creating problems for me?” You likely aren’t 100% of the problem… but as a leader, you’re probably more than 0% of the problem.

How to actually fix things? That depends on the unique combination of root causes you’re experiencing. It may not be a quick solution—but the effort’s likely worth it.

Fixing the problem will likely improve morale and—by stopping time leakage—improve your profit margins. After all, it’s hard to get employees to take ownership when you keep making it harder. Fortunately, your newly improved self-awareness can help you fix current problems and prevent future ones.

Question: How can you appropriately create urgency to help your agency meet deadlines?

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