The Important, the Urgent and remembering it’s the people that Matter


Large scale outages at major service providers isn’t something new. In 2007 both Rackspace and the 365 Main data center in San Francisco suffered major outages that took down part of what made up Web 2.0. Amazon Web Services had major outages in 2011, 2013, and again last week each causing outages for several services.

Our businesses depend on the utility of AWS and we either unknowingly or willingly accept the risks of doing so. But, if you’re in only one region could you run your service out of multiple ones or use two different IaaS providers? Are you so reliant on them that you couldn’t recreate your environment on a different provider to offer basic services to your customers?

Maybe you’be been dealing with the urgent tasks and have been missing the important ones? I know I still get bogged down responding to issues that seem urgent at the time.

What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.

– Dwight D. Eisenhower

That quote from Eisenhower shows how he approached this using a straightforward method. Called the “Eisenhower Decision Principle” it let him triage his tasks and focus on the important stuff. That simple quote and method should be all you need when sorting out your own priorities.

It’s also called the “Eisenhower Decision Matrix”, because you start off with a square divided up into four quadrants as shown below. They’re labeled as Important& Urgent, Important & Not Urgent, Not Important & Urgent, and Not Important & Not Urgent. You then place each task in the appropriate quadrant and then it should be easy to organize them.

Important & Urgent

These are items that require your immediate attention. Think of outages and deadlines.

Important & Not Urgent

These are the items that you want to focus on. This should be the bigger issues that need thought and planning, things that will help prevent items filling up the “Urgent & Important”.

Not Important & Urgent

Now we’re getting to stuff that should be handed off to someone else. These are things that need attention, but don’t get us to our goals. Examples could be security patches that need to be rolled out or auditing the key length of ssh keys used in your environment.

Not Important & Not Urgent

These are the distractions, the stuff that won’t help you towards your goals and aren’t critical. This should become a blackhole taking away the things that waste your time and efforts.

Even with such a system being able to delegate urgent tasks to someone else while you work on the important ones may be a problem for a small organization or team. At some point you need enough people to support them so they can delegate tasks out when needed. If you don’t, your people won’t be able to address the important stuff.

People, Ideas, and Things in that Order

– Colonel John R. Boyd, USAF

In the fire service there is the “Quint Concept”. This is the idea that you combine a fire engine with a fire truck (also called a ladder). The result is a vehicle that can carry fire fighters, a tank of water, a pump to move the water, hose to both draw water and to put water on the fire, and a large truck mounted ladder.

For the bean counters this gives the benefit of being able to reduce the number of people needed in the fire department. Less people to pay and less equipment to maintain.

A quick lesson in fire operations. The fire fighters all have the same training, but they perform different duties at an emergency depending on if they’re on an engine or truck. Over time they build up an expertise on those duties.

The result of combining the companies is a reduction in the number of people and apparatus needed. They almost never add more quints, it’s always a reduction to save money. You now have fewer people to deal with the same number of emergencies and you lose the benefits of having specialist, because you’ve made generalist out of them.

This creates a more dangerous environment for the fire fighters themselves as well as the general public. Unfortunately, budgets seem to always trump safety no matter the application.

Looking back you could say the powers at be focused on the urgent (budgetary concerns) rather than the important (public safety). The technology advanced that let the engine and truck merge into the quint, but no matter what new technology comes up it always requires having the people to do the job.

It’s the people that create the solutions to the problems we’re facing. Technology doesn’t do this for us. Without the right people and the right number of them you cannot expect to get past just the urgent and important.