This website covers knowledge management, personal effectiveness, theory of constraints, amongst other topics. Opinions expressed here are strictly those of the owner, Jack Vinson, and those of the commenters.

A Sense of Urgency

UrgencyI picked John Kotter's A Sense of Urgency off the shelf last week.  It is completely focused on the first of his eight step change model that is described in Leading Change and many of his other works on the topic of change management. The book describes the basic problem (too much complacency and false urgency; not enough urgency), describes a high level strategy to create urgency, and gives four tactics to help increase urgency. Throughout the discussion, Kotter includes anecdotes from companies big and small that have succeeded (and failed) in creating the needed urgency.

I particularly enjoyed the opening discussion of what is urgency and what is not urgency from the perspective of the behaviors.  I found the not urgency discussion somewhat uncomfortable because I see it all over (including right here at the keyboard).  Kotter talks about two types of lack-of-urgency: complacency and false urgency. Complacency is the classic attitude or feeling that everything is fine and that I / we don't need to expend a lot of effort. False urgency on the other hand is best evidenced by loads of action (meetings, committees, presentations) with no actual movement.  Both of these are pervasive in organizations - and it gets worse as organizations get larger and inertia sets in.  Reading this section made me say, "Oh, crap" a lot.

So, then, what does urgency look like?  Kotter describes it as an inner drive to reach for something new - a new level of performance or a better way of doing things.  It isn't the false urgency of responding to a threat with frantic action, fear or anger. It is seeing in the threat an opportunity for real change. And then moving, moving, moving - often before all the facts are nailed down. There isn't time to be perfect.

Underlying a true sense of urgency is a set of feelings: a compulsive determination to move, and win, now. (p. 45)

The other thing that I read here - that I didn't quite catch until I got to the end of the book - is that the feeling behind urgency isn't just felt by one person. It is felt by the organization. The organization that wants to succeed.  Just as the organization can be the opposite: complacent or fearful (creating false urgency). 

The strategy to create urgency?  Strive to turn people's hearts and minds to excite the feelings of urgency.  (Facts alone won't work.)  And the four tactics all have to do with mechanisms to bring home the sense of urgency.   

  1. Bring the outside in. Help people connect to customers or see the reality of competition and what it means to the organization and to them.  Do this with stories, site visits, videos - not raw data and numeric comparisons. Share these things widely, rather than hiding or limiting distribution. The intention is to inspire - maybe even taking some pages from the ideas of tribal behavior and creating a cohesive vision of where to go.
  2. Behave with urgency every day. As a change agent, urgency must be part of the DNA. Drop the anxiety, boost the excitement and engagement.  Open up your calendar to allow for flexibility and the all-important human conversations.* Relentlessly drop non-value-adding activities. Clutter inhibits urgency. And again, be visible in these actions.
  3. Find opportunity in crises. Rather than creating anxiety, look for the silver lining in "bad" situations.  On the reverse, don't let good times or the lack of crisis dampen urgency. (Don't create fake crises either.)
  4. Deal with the NoNos.  While the term feels rather pejorative, the idea comes from another of Kotter's books, Our Iceberg Is Melting. These are not the healthy skeptics, these are the people who consistently push for no action. Kotter is saying they should be handled appropriately, and the usual tactics of co-opting or ignoring do not work. Instead, use social pressure to put their behavior in the open; give them useful but distracting assignments; or most difficult, remove them from the system.

* A friend recently sent me a quote Peter Drucker’s 1966 book The Effective Executive that fits this topic to the tee: 

Another common time-waster is mal-organization. Its symptom is an excess of meetings. Meetings are by definition a concession to deficient organization. For one either meets or one works. One cannot do both at the same time. (Drucker)

The book closes with comments on keeping up urgency. This one is a struggle because so many people equate urgency and the associated action with tension, and they want to relieve the tension when the situation appears to be resolved.  The challenge is that in many industries, there is no "over". And in competitive situations, the need for vigilance and ongoing responsiveness is high. This is a classic problem: reach a new level of performance and then stop, rather than reaching for the next level.  One aspect of this that Kotter doesn't discuss is the idea of goals and targets (annual, quarterly, etc). Why not set an "improbable" target of 50% growth and be thrilled with hitting 20%, rather than the 15% goal that you barely make.  The "improbable" target should be there to inspire new thinking and the urgency that normal goal setting doesn't create.

Related: My other articles referencing John Kotter books and change management. And of course the Kotter International website has more information on Urgency and the other aspects of his change model.

[Photo: "Urgency" by Alias Rex - I'm not sure why the London bridge was labeled this way, but I like the image.]

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