Harvard Business School Professor John Kotter recently spoke with MDM Editor Lindsay Young about his new book, A Sense of Urgency. Kotter has researched and written a series of leading books on change management including Our Iceberg is Melting, a tale of business change told in fable form. Kotter says one of the biggest mistakes organizations make when pursuing change is not creating a high enough sense of urgency among employees to spark the needed shift in direction. The current economic situation has exasperated change efforts in many companies.
As Kotter says in his latest book, A Sense of Urgency: At the beginning of any effort to make changes of any magnitude, if a sense of urgency is not high enough, and complacency is not low enough, everything else is much more difficult.
A sense of urgency is a desire to act on critical issues now – making real progress every day on issues that are central to an organization's success.
Kotter argues that complacency in the workplace is much more common than many leaders think, and often is derived from past success or perceived success. Complacency can also rear its head in tough times, as people put the responsibility for creating and fixing problems on others' shoulders.
Kotter also says to be aware of false urgency. "False urgency" is driven by anxiety, anger and frustration – stemming from current economic conditions and fear of layoff, for example – and not motivation to fulfill a company's vision. A false sense of urgency precludes focusing on critical problems and opportunities to move the company forward.
In this MDM Interview, Kotter addresses his book's focus – instilling urgency in the work force – in the context of economic change today.
MDM: What is the main point you want executives to take from your book?
John Kotter: Increasingly without a sense of urgency among many people and not just a few in your organization you're going to have problems. A true sense of urgency will help you increasingly in what is becoming a rapidly changing world.
MDM: How do you create a sense of urgency to react effectively to internal and external change, such as technology, global and demographic shifts?
JK: If you look around, there are all kinds of little ways that people create a sense of urgency. In the book I put those ways in four groups (see pg. 4 in this issue).
There are a lot of ways to bring external reality into the firm. When you do that, complacency starts dying. Role modeling urgency yourself has a wave effect. It's amazing. It just kind of shoots out from you to other people. Or just simply look every time there is a crisis big or small whether there is an opportunity there. Making it a simple habit to just ask the question – ‘Could this be used in a way to create urgency?' – can be incredibly useful.
MDM: Distributors are facing the effects of an economic recession. Can they use this to create a sense of urgency?
JK: The amount of true urgency it is creating out there is very little.
MDM: Why do you think that is?
JK: Because people don't understand what true urgency is. The economic situation is creating a lot of false urgency, which is this anxiety-driven, anger-driven frenzy of activity where we all run in circles figuring out what to do. It is activity-focused not productivity-focused. There is a lot of that going on out there.
There is also, believe it or not, enormous amounts of complacency still. Remember you can think there are huge problems and still be complacent. That's because you think you're not creating the problems and you don't have to change your behavior – the guy over there does. You fill an organization with people who think the problem is over there and you end up
actions – is to start acting with true urgency yourself. Because you control your own behavior.
For some bosses, the No. 1 thing they could do is to take a direct report who is a complacency creator and just get him out of the way. It’s amazing how much damage a single person can do. As urgency becomes important, because of a fast-changing world, those guys become a cancer. We have to learn to deal with it. In some companies that is the most important thing a boss can do.
There are little actions that might be easy depending on your job in the company such as connecting yourself and employees better with the outside reality and in the process reduce complacency.
Send people out to really good association meetings or pass around good books or actually listen to front-line employees who see the outside world. There are a million things there.
MDM: How does size of a company affect its ability to effectively create a sense of urgency to spark change?
JK: The more layers there are, the more difficult it can be. But there are ways to do it. Even in small companies, it’s amazing how much front-line employees can be ignored. With a larger company, it means you have to plan more systematically. How do we get people to give us the reality they see each day – how do we systematically collect it?
Some bosses just go out and hang around. Sam Walton (Wal-Mart) used to go to stores and have pep rallies with the people with the aprons on. Not only would he give advice but he would hang around on the floor asking questions about who is coming into the stores, what they are excited about, and so on. Is the back end of the house where trucks pull up – is it organized in a way that helps you? There are an endless number of questions you can ask.
He knew as CEO how to make himself down-to-earth, non-regal, non-threatening and to get people to open up to him. That’s one way people can do it.
MDM: There are challenges in reaching every level of an organization with this message, especially when branch managers, for example, feel consumed with the day-to-day work they must do.
JK: There’s no question about that. But if branch managers felt a true sense of urgency themselves they would find ways – it’s just natural. You don’t say I’m too busy. You say, nope I have to do it! You figure how to delegate and reprioritize and how you can work on it tomorrow. It just happens.
A lot of branch managers who come to you and say I don’t have time – that’s a good indication that they don’t have a sense of urgency. If they did they would figure out a solution.
Kotter’s book, A Sense of Urgency,” is available from Harvard Business Press. Kotter is the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership, Emeritus, at Harvard Business School.
Four Tactics for Increasing Urgency & Decreasing Complacency
According to Harvard Professor John Kotter, leaders must:
- Bring the outside in: Reconnect internal reality with external opportunities and hazards and use emotionally compelling data, people, video, sights and sounds.
- Behave with urgency everyday:Never act content, anxious or angry; visibly demonstrate your own sense of urgency in meetings, one-on-one and in email.
- Find opportunity in crises: See if crises can be a "friend" to destroy complacency, but proceed with caution.
- Deal with the NoNos: These are the urgency-killers – not skeptics but people determined to remain complacent.
with a complacent organization.
What companies need is a lot of real urgency where everyone says they are going to come to work every single day to help kill off the hazard or grab the opportunity.
That leads to hyper-alertness and gets away from an internal focus to what’s happening out there. It means reprioritizing your agenda and getting rid of junk, and delegating more. That’s what real urgency is all about. You can use this economic disaster we’re in right now to create more of that in an organization.
I just saw a letter from an executive student that a CEO sent out to his employees. It’s beautiful. In just two pages the guy talks about not just hazards but opportunities. There is a determination that you feel in the letter from the beginning to the end that at least the CEO is going to get up every day and do something.
And he needs your help. In the letter he is getting away from false urgency and trying to reduce panic. For example, saying we’ve lived through horrible times before, and we have succeeded. There’s realism too: We’re going to have to do a lot of things to get through this and get through it well. What’s terrible is how seldom this is done.
MDM: Can you describe in more detail what false urgency looks like?
JK: Go into an organization, and you’ll see lots of activity – people may be working long hours, lots of tongues on the ground, lots of energy – it can be mistaken for a great sense of urgency. But just look at what they’re doing. Do meetings end with everybody going around and saying what they’ll do in the next four to five days to act on something? Do they feel that sense of urgency and does it play itself out in that behavior?
With false urgency, meetings go on forever and they lead to more activity that doesn’t necessarily produce anything. People go into self-protective mode. It’s just a spinoff of activity and task forces and initiatives but it’s just frenetic activity – not productivity. It’s anxiety- or anger-driven if you look underneath the surface. It’s not driven by gut determination.
I’m going to try everything possible to not get fired, and if scampering around looking busy helps with that, that’s what I’m going to do.
MDM: Can you transform that energy into a true sense of urgency?
JK: It’s quite possible to change that frenetic behavior and fear-driven energy into a real sense of urgency that helps the organization deal with these difficult times. But you have to understand that what you’re looking at is not real urgency – it’s activity. And you have to understand what real urgency is. And then you have to look at how to get from A to B. Role modeling helps enormously in all of this.
A lot of false urgency is anxiety-driven; people are in a panic. There are ways through how we talk, what you say and how you say it that calms that panic.
In the 18th century every 20 years we had a huge economic problem. Not only did we get through it but we became the strongest country the world had ever known. We made it through a depression – we’re upset about 6 percent unemployment, and in the depression it was 27 percent at its peak.
None of us can even conceive of that, and we made it through it. We emerged after World War II as a shining star. There is plenty of proof that we can prevail – and one of the ways you turn the frenetic panic into a true urgency is by helping people see it and talk about it.
MDM: What are the first steps in creating a sense of urgency in a company when it wants to make a change?
JK: I’m not sure there’s a sequence in creating a sense of urgency. It’s more opportunistic. Crisis is coming at you – ask the question: Is this an opportunity? If so, focus your energy on that. An easy one of course – if you have any control over your own