Book review: A sense of urgency (not complacency)

A Sense of Urgency

By John Kotter

(Harvard Business Press, $22)

It's 9 a.m. on a Monday and where else would you rather be than in a meeting? An urgent and mandatory meeting.

The meeting was booked in your calendar two weeks ago. The meeting was called to deal with a crisis that broke early last month. Revenues are way down. Expenses are way up. Projections are way off and the long range forecast doesn't look good.

The first 15 minutes of the meeting are devoted to grazing the continental breakfast buffet, debating whether Heath Ledger deserves a posthumous Oscar for his work as the Joker, wondering if we'll ever again have a weekend without rain and waiting for the usual stragglers to saunter in.

Your commander-in-chief kicks things off in typical fashion with a well-worn joke and a blown punch line.

Next up is the chief numbers guy to deliver the sobering state of the union address. But the numbers guy doesn't have the 70-slide PowerPoint that he's been working on for the last 10 days. It's half done and back in his office. So the numbers guy wings it for the next 20 minutes, giving ballpark guesstimates on what's wrong and what's needed to right the ship.

Half the room debates the numbers guy. There's nothing to worry about. The sky isn't falling. It's always darkest before the dawn. We've been here before and everything always turns out all right.

The other half of the room feeds their "Crackberry" addictions.

The commander-in-chief gets pulled out of the meeting three times to take important phone calls and sign important documents.

With 10 minutes left on the clock, a contingent of managers packs up and heads off to seize a day jammed with marathon meetings. Taking a cue from the mass exodus, the commander-in-chief wraps things up by saying something must be done and promising to strike a task force that will develop a set of recommendations and report back within the next six to eight months.

If you're smart, you'll skip your next meeting, run back to your office, knock the rust off your resume and start booking lunch dates with anyone who can offer you a new gig.

Beware of complacency. It's a big problem in a whole lot of organizations, according to author John Kotter.

"We have all seen it," he writes. "Yet we underestimate its power and its prevalence. Highly destructive complacency is, in fact, all around us, including in places where people would deny it, deny it and deny it still more."

Kotter estimates that 70 per cent of change projects fail, creating an enormous drag on organizations, communities, governments and economies.

When doing post-mortems on projects that end badly, Kotter finds the No. 1 problem is an inability to ignite a sense of urgency.

Complacency is the culprit.

We stick with the status quo. We shy away from new opportunities and choose to ignore huge risks. We live off the fumes of past success.

"In a fast-moving and changing world, a sleepy or steadfast contentment with the status quo can create disaster."

Now some of us get busy. Really, really busy. We run off to meetings with overloaded agendas. We crank out PowerPoints and fire off hundreds of e-mails before lunch. But at the end of another long and frenetic day, we do nothing that adds any real value to our organizations.

We're exhibiting false urgency, which can be as bad, if not worse, than complacency, Kotter says.

"This flurry of behaviour is not driven by any underlying determination to move and win, now. It's driven by pressures that create anxiety and anger. The resulting frantic activity is more distracting than useful.

"Who can feel absolutely determined to deal now with the central issues facing an organization after racing into nine meetings on nine different topics in the space of one day?"

What you want is a true sense of urgency. Kotter calls it a gut-level determination to move and win now. To do something important today.

It's about being alert and proactive. Paying as much attention to what's happening outside your organization as to what's going on inside the walls of your workplace. Taking smart risks.

"With a true sense of urgency, people want to come to work each day ready to co-operate energetically and responsively with intelligent initiatives from others. And they do. People want to find ways to launch smart initiatives. And they do. They don't move at 35 miles per hour when 65 is needed to win."

So how do you get buy-in for urgency in an organization where complacency and false urgency rule the day? Kotter offers up one strategy and four tactics.

Create a sense of urgency by aiming for the heart first and head second. Feelings are more influential than thoughts, Kotter says.

Emotion trumps logic. It's worth remembering that Martin Luther King Jr. didn't have a strategic plan. He had a dream.

"Behaving with passions, conviction, optimism, urgency and a steely determination will trump an analytically brilliant memo every time."

As for tactics, bring outside reality into groups that are inwardly focused and lulled by past success. Narrow the gap between what's happening outside your organization and what people are seeing and feeling on the inside.

Have customers, clients and competitors do show-and-tells with the troops. Get them on video or live in person to say, "Here's what you're doing right, here's what you're doing wrong and here's what your competitors are doing better than you."

Bring people in. Send your people out.

Second, behave with true urgency every single day. Lead by example. What you say, and more importantly do, tells everyone you're bound and determined to move and win now.

Clear the decks. A crowded appointment diary is one of the great enemies of urgency, Kotter says. Scrap low-value meetings and don't let people delegate problems up to you.

Third, look for the upside potential in crisis. Can you use a crisis to create a burning platform so that even the most complacent are eventually forced to jump? Just make sure the crisis is visible, unambiguous, related to real business problems and significant enough that simple, small solutions won't work. And never give the impression that you're staging a crisis to manipulate people to act.

And finally, deal decisively with the NoNos in your organization. These are the wet blankets who kill urgency, crush new ideas and discredit anyone who tries to break with the status quo. They'll give you 12 reasons why a new idea is a wrong idea. Don't ignore them or try to co-opt them. Kotter recommends distracting them, firing them or outing NoNos and letting social forces in the workplace reduce or stop their destructive behaviours.

"A real sense of urgency is rare, much rarer than most people seem to think," Kotter says. "A big reason that a true sense of urgency is rare is that it is not a natural state of affairs. It has to be created and re-created."

The good news is Kotter shows how to get it done. So get moving in the right direction.

Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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