Why ASAP is Never Good Enough

I always thought ASAP (As Soon As Possible) was such a cool term. It is so easy to say and makes it crystal clear that the one or two words immediately preceding ASAP are to be focused on. I need this report ASAP. Get this problem solved ASAP. Wire the money ASAP. Years ago, while at a major technology company and after an exhaustive project review meeting, we learned that the release date of a key new product had slipped again. I still don’t recall why it took 18 people, and hours in a dark room with a bright projector to get to that nugget of bad news. Maybe you’ve experienced something similar in your career before. I framed and reviewed again the consequences of the delay for customers waiting for this product. I outlined the adverse impact on our top line, profitability, and reputation. I described how we could still potentially be first-to-market if we pull in the release date a bit earlier than the new date. I then implored the development team to do whatever is possible to get the product done ASAP. To my horror, the VP of Engineering jumped in and said, “It is not possible to get it done ASAP.” I was not sure if my hearing was failing me. I spelled out ASAP in my mind (As Soon As Possible) to make sure there are no other embedded words in ASAP such as miracle, jump from the Eifel Tower, or such.  I spelled the whole thing out in my head again: “Do whatever is possible to get this product done As Soon As Possible.” I thought of various ways how my request could be impossible and could not come up with any. I asked myself, “How could getting something done as soon as possible be not possible?” A key point is that ASAP can cause unanticipated reactions, especially under pressure. Through focused effort, the team was able to pull in the schedule a little and release a solid product, not the least because of the use of ASAP.

I’ve used ASAP more times than I am willing to admit, to get others to do something I suddenly felt was urgent. Not withstanding the story above, I’ve recently concluded that ASAP (while still cool) is a rather useless, vague, and confusing four-letter acronym. It can be used (or perceived) as a clever technique for piling on additional things for others to do with no consideration as to how this could impact other projects or priorities. It is an asynchronous sneak interruption, without a proper context as to what is already agreed upon and previously prioritized. ASAP is used because it is so neat for the person expressing it, but it can be nerve-wracking for the person receiving it. Since it is not explicitly time bound, it does not even always produce the intended result. ASAP is never good enough in the first place.

Do you use ASAP? How often and for type of tasks or projects? Do you sense a hint of anxiety or push-back when you impose it on others? Let’s toss out the word ASAP and replace it with explicit and precise conversations about what caused the urgency to develop, what needs to be done, why, and by when. While we’re at it, let’s also explicitly identify and acknowledge the impact on other tasks or projects, if any. By doing so, let’s move forward with better clarity, improved execution, and less anxiety.