In 1899 Sebastian Kresge founded the S.S. Kresge retail store in Detroit which would later be known as the big-box behemoth, Kmart. By the 1980s, Kmart had expanded to over 2,000 stores and was the second-largest retailer in the United States. During the 1990s, Walmart struck against the Kmart shopping base offering always the lowest prices and later Target moved on to the higher-end customer base. Squeezing Kmart in the middle, the company chose to continue to compete for the entire market share, not focusing on a specific customer segment.
Fighting a war on two fronts eventually led to focusing on only the present of combating daily fires to survive and trying not to lose too much ground at each quarterly report. This war of attrition that resembled the trench warfare of World War I eventually put the company on life support and in 2002 it filed for bankruptcy. In 2004, Kmart attempted a comeback to sustain its dying model by merging with Sears which has maintained a steady trend of store closures and liquidations over the following fourteen years.
This model continues to perpetuate the cycle of crisis which continually digs the organization further into the hole. Kmart was known for its continued sense of urgency which disabled its ability to focus on growth and development. This is not an uncommon trend in organizations, focusing on the immediate comes with multiple behavioral rewards. Focusing always on the present, a person has immediate feedback with tangible results. There is a sense of accomplishment and reward for being the manager that can quell the crisis and keep the team fighting until the next day. Covey calls this the quadrant I of tasks that are important and urgent and exampled by, “if I don’t sign off on timecards, the workforce doesn’t get paid, and then riots will ensure.”
The Kmart example is a global organizational case study on ignoring strategy to maintain the status quo, the other half is the individual examples of remaining static. Recently research defined the term “The Urgency Effect” where the mind prioritizes urgent minor tasks over more important tasks. The mind tends to devalue long-term payoffs and values immediate satisfaction. Where maintenance is routine tasks, they are less cognitively demanding.
With this low stress, the mind can attempt to multitask and can complete a multitude of low-value tasks which is rewarding and provides a higher level of self-accomplishment with a micro release of accomplishment endorphins. The military uses this same trick with making your bed first thing in the morning, it establishes the first task done for the day which triggers a mini spark of energy because the mind is seeing the direct results of accomplishment which can be the momentum for the day. I’ve personally fallen into this trap of building a multitude of mini-tasks from picking up the house and vacuuming to getting an oil change on the car and mowing the lawn where I will look back at the end of the day in astonishment of all that I had completed and yet accomplished nothing of true value.
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