KotSens 09-02-034

A Sense of Urgency



John P. Kotter

Harvard Business Press, 2008, 194 pp., ISBN 978-1-4221-7971-0



John Kotter is Professor of Leadership Emeritus at Harvard Business School and the author of several books on leadership and change.  In his landmark book, Leading Change, Kotter described eight necessary steps for bringing significant and lasting change to an organization.  The first is creating a sense of urgency among leaders and managers. 


As he further studied change in organizations he discovered that 70% of all major change efforts failed, or were completed significantly behind schedule or over budget, and the most significant reason was the lack of a sense of urgency.  He explored this concept further in The Heart of Change and popularized some of the concepts in the fun little book, Our Iceberg is Melting.  In this book he provides practical tactics to develop and maintain a suitable sense of urgency to enable significant change.


"If a sense of urgency is not high enough and complacency is not low enough, everything else becomes so much more difficult.  Success easily produces complacency.  It doesn't even have to be recent success.  "A sense of urgency is moving from an essential element in big change programs to an essential asset in general." (Preface)


1.  It all starts with a sense of urgency.

The leader may recognize the desperate need for change but two levels down people live in a different world.  People think they have already been running so fast and so long they are stressed out.  They are looking for a little less urgency.  However, much activity may be frantic scrambling that accomplishes little. (3)


Complacency is being content with the status quo.  In a fast-changing world this can be disaster.  True urgency is driven not by fear or anxiety but by a deep determination to win.  You try to accomplish something important each day. (6)  Real urgency is an essential asset that must be created and re-created. (7)  The gut level determination is to move, and win, now.  People are alert and proactive, looking for information relative to success.  They cooperate energetically and intelligently.  (8)


"It is often believed that people cannot maintain a high sense of urgency over a prolonged period of time, without burnout.  Yet…true urgency doesn't produce dangerous levels of stress, at least partially because it motivates people to relentlessly look for ways to rid themselves of chores that add little value to their organizations but clog their calendars and slow down needed action."  (9) 


"A false sense of urgency is pervasive and insidious because people mistake activity for productivity." (9) 


Urgency is rare because it is not a natural state of affairs. (15)  Urgency tends to collapse after a few successes.  (16)


2.  Complacency and false urgency

Complacency is a feeling of contentment or self satisfaction, especially in the face of trouble or danger.  (19)  People can be complacent in the face of danger when they feel nothing is required in their own behaviors; it is someone else's problem.


False urgency is built on anxiety and anger.  It may drive one to energetic behavior that is primarily defensive or for show.


3.  Increasing true urgency

Aim for the heart.  Intellectual commitment is not enough.  True urgency is a set of feelings, "a compulsive determination to move, and win, now."  (45)  It is an ambitious determination to push beyond the obstacles.  Heart comes first.  "The challenge is to fold a rational case directed toward the mind into an experience that is very much aimed at the heart." (47) 


Tactics that aim at the heart have five key characteristics:

  1. They are thoughtfully created human experiences (not just documents and abstract ideas).
  2. They work on all the senses, not just the ears.  They can be compelling, surprising, or dramatic in ways that influence our emotions. 
  3. They elicit the right kinds of emotions and make people feel that they can accomplish what is needed, that the crisis can be an opportunity
  4. The experience does not need an explanation.  It is not covert or manipulative but it avoids saying in words what is difficult to say or hear.
  5. It leads us to raise our sights and to emotionally embrace new goals. (47-49)


Leaders who are successful in creating urgency utilize four behaviors.  They

  1. Create emotionally compelling experiences.
  2. Model urgency in their behavior on an ongoing basis
  3. Look for the possibilities in the crises.
  4. Confront the naysayers effectively.   (58-9)


4.  Tactic One - Bring the Outside In

Organizations are generally too internally focused.  Leaders are often disconnected from external opportunities and hazards.  Thus complacency grows.  Urgency grows when what is happening on the outside is observed by those on the inside.  Kotter lists seven methods to close the gap:  Listen to employees who interface with customers.  Video tape and show things outside that insiders need to see (like customers using and criticizing your product).  Give out troubling information: don't withhold it.  Decorate with signals for "excitement, caution, speed, and change."  Send out scouts.  Bring outsiders in (experts, consultants, customers) to present and report.  Bring in external data, appropriately.


5.  Tactic Two - Behave with urgency every day

6.  Tactic Three - Find opportunity in crises

When one is on a "burning platform" the crisis causes one to move, looking for an opportunity.  Control systems are important but don't let damage control eliminate an opportunity to mobilize needed action.  A crisis can be used to create urgency, and to position an organization for the future.  Fear and anger can kill hope.  The heart needs hope in order to act with passion, conviction, optimism, and resolve. (126) 


If natural events do not create a crisis, you must.  But be wise. (132)  A useful crisis creates a situation that cannot be resolved by incremental change.  However, it must be associated with real business problems, not be a ploy. (135)


7.  Tactic Four - Deal with NoNos

NoNos are highly skilled urgency killers.  They can be powerful barriers to progress.  They are not true skeptics who serve a good purpose by curbing naïve enthusiasm and can be convinced by evidence.  NoNos will discredit people and derail the process.  They continue to question the information and demand more proof.  They disrupt useful conversation and cause delay and frustration.  You can't ignore them.  You can't co-opt them.  You must distract them, push them out of the organization, or expose their behaviors in a socially acceptable way so that social pressure will shut them down. 


8.  Keeping urgency up

"Urgency leads to success leads to complacency.  At no time are these natural forces stronger than after people have worked very hard and have been rewarded by a visible, unambiguous win." (170) 


"To keep you moving, in many situations it's going to be essential to have an external problem.  If you are just going to beat up on people and say we have to do better, it doesn't work."  "There has to be something real that they can see outside that leads them to say, 'We haven't made ourselves into the organization we should be.  We need to do more.  We need to try harder.  I'm willing to try harder.'" (183) 


"The ultimate solution to the problem of urgency dropping after successes is to create the right culture."  "With a culture of urgency, people deeply value the capacity to grab new opportunities, avoid new hazards, and continually find ways to win.  Behaviors that are the norm include being constantly alert, focusing externally, moving fast, stopping low-value-added activities that absorb time and effort, relentlessly pushing for change when it is needed, and providing the leadership to produce smart change no matter where you are in the hierarchy." (185)



Some personal thoughts:

1.  In our society some people are pretty relaxed.  Others are over endowed with a sense of urgency and responsibility.  The former tend to under respond to attempts to build urgency and the latter tend to over respond, developing an ever increasing high-stress lifestyle that is not healthy for them or their families.


2.  Because we are moving from episodic to continuous change, Kotter says we need for urgency to become part of the culture of our organizations.  Urgency generates stress.  Habitual stress is a growing characteristic of American lives and is leading to all kinds of personal, family, and societal breakdowns.


3.  The author says an ongoing sense of urgency does not have to lead to burnout.  The way to cope is to delegate better and to quit doing unnecessary activities (102).  While there is a bit of truth here, the larger truth is that some activities can be dismissed and some can be set aside temporarily, but in the long haul the piper must be paid.  Many of the things that can be delayed temporarily can't be delayed forever.  Things get put aside that are required by the boss, by regulations, by the government, by ethics, and by good relationships.  There is an ongoing danger that putting things aside to accommodate the urgent often results in neglect of details, hurried and careless work, fractured relationships, things falling through the cracks, poor quality, and other serious issues.


4.  There is more to life than increasing its speed.


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