September 2, 2008
News & Opinion: Welcome Back Kotter
For the past thirty-five years I have been studying what people actually do to help their organizations perform well, no matter how difficult the circumstances. My work has led me to this topic and this book. In the pages that follow, you will find dozens of stories about urgency, complacency, and false urgency. I will describe a strategy and four sets of tactics I have seen people use to create a strong sense of urgency and an unexpectedly high level of performance--with benefits flowing to investors, employees, national economies, and their own careers.
To learn more, check out the video and read the conversation with the author below.
If you'd like to catch up on Kotter's previous books before diving into this one, you're in luck. We've gotten the band back together (as Todd eloquently put it) and relaunched InBubbleWrap for the day. Head on over and enter to win the John Kotter Library, including: Leading Change, The Heart of Change and John P. Kotter on What Leaders Really Do.
For many years, you have been teaching business people how to be change leaders. In A Sense of Urgency you identify the shifting nature of change. How does that affect the current business climate?
It used to be that companies experienced large scale changes--a large acquisition or a new corporate strategy--about once a year. I call that episodic change. Now this still exists, but it lives--as do we--in a world of continuous change. Companies are always shifting, evolving, and changing and small- and mid-size changes come at an almost ceaseless flow. In this current situation, being able to establish and sustain a true sense of urgency becomes an essential asset rather than a nice-to-have quality. Without it, taskforces underperform. Enterprises underperform. And people get hurt--sometimes badly.
How successful are organizations in creating and sustaining meaningful change?
Scarily, in doing my research, I found that 70 percent of large scale initiatives in companies failed or were not fully launched. Only 10 percent of the cases achieved what they set out to do--and in some cases overshot their expectations. In those ten, a similar formula was used in virtually all instances, and they all began with creating a sufficiently high sense of urgency among enough people to set the stage for making a challenging leap into some new direction.
What are some errors people make when they try to create change?
The single biggest error is that they do not create a high enough sense of urgency. When the urgency challenge is not handled well, even very capable people and resource-rich organizations can suffer greatly. You see this often in a company that has a history of being a market leader. There is a feeling that everything is just fine and nothing needs to change because they know what they are doing. But the world we live in keeps shifting and moving forward and a company can easily move from first to last just by believing they are successful. Complacency created by prosperity can blindside even the best managers.
What is false urgency and how can we stop it?
False urgency is even more insidious than complacency and just as common. In an organization suffering from false urgency, there is a great deal of energized action, but it's driven by fear, anger, and frustration and not a focused determination to win, and win as soon as is reasonably possible. With false urgency the action has a frantic feeling: running from meeting to meeting, producing volumes of paper, moving rapidly in circles, all with a dysfunctional orientation that often prevents people from exploiting key opportunities and addressing knowing problems. But, if you ask managers, they don't see the negative energy--they will always comment on how fast everyone is moving and how very busy everyone is. They will deny, and deny again, if you tell them it's not truly urgent.
How do you define true urgency?
When people have a true sense of urgency they think that action on critical issues is needed now, not eventually, not when it fits into a schedule. Now means making real progress every single day. This isn't about setting up more meetings and creating bigger teams. It's about really accomplishing something of value every single day. It means seeing the risks around you as opportunities rather than unobtainable challenges. You must spend your day moving forward--not just putting out fires left right and center. With complacency and false urgency, people spend their day looking inward. People infused with true urgency constantly scan the horizon around them--both inside and out--looking for information relevant to success and survival.
Wouldn't that high level of energy create burnout or undue stress?
Not at all. A true sense of urgency is a highly positive and focused force that doesn't create dangerous levels of stress. At least partly because it motivates people to relentlessly look for ways to rid themselves of chores that add little value to their organization but that clog their calendars and slow down needed action. People who are determined to move and win, now, simply do not waste time or add stress by engaging in irrelevant or business-as-usual activities.
This is the basic strategy that any person or organization can put into place to create a better, healthier, and more productive environment.
How do you create a heightened sense of urgency and then sustain it?
Well, you don't do it by appealing just to someone's sense of logic. You have to appeal to their hearts too, just as great leaders throughout the ages have won over the hearts and minds of people. Within that heart-head strategy there seem to be four sets of tactics that work best. First, use a variety of methods to help people better see the hazards and opportunities that are all around them--and incredibly people don't often see them. Second, become an urgency-beacon in the way you behave each and every day. The vast majority of people do not. Third, always look to see if there is an opportunity in a crisis to help increase urgency. And finally, confront the No--Nos--those people who hate change and are remarkably skilled at fostering both complacency and false urgency.
What about the future of urgency and change management?
Speed will only increase. A sense of urgency will only become more essential. It is not a luxury but a must have--a critical competitive advantage--and a humanitarian necessity for all workers. Sometimes in a work situation it is hard to clearly see this issue. But looking at some larger challenges helps us gain perspective. Think nationally and globally: climate change, terrorism, the monumental effects of China and India becoming developed nations, the ethical issues surrounding bioscience and the need for Social Security reform in the United States. Do we have a strong sense of urgency to deal with these issues? Remember, words are not the test. Action is the test. Furious activity and running and meetings and slick presentations are NOT the sign of true urgency. Alertness, movement, and leadership, now--and from many people, not a few--are the signs of true urgency. So where do we stand today? We can do better.
About Dylan Schleicher
Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.