A Sense of Urgency
By John P. Kotter
Harvard Business Press, 2008
In 2001, BusinessWeek, named John Kotter America’s leading guru on leadership. He is Professor Emeritus at the Harvard Business School and author of 15 books on leadership and change including Leading Change, The Heart of Change, Matsushita Leadership, Power and Influence, and Our Iceberg is Melting. Leading Change outlined a popular eight-step framework for making change efforts successful that paralleled the widely emulated Change Acceleration Program (CAP) at General Electric. The first of these steps was to “raise urgency.”
Kotter’s new book emphasizes the difficulty and importance of urgency “the toughest of the eight steps and the one without which even the most brilliant initiative will sputter and die.” Follow-up research indicated that the biggest error made by people seeking to initiate a significant change effort was a failure to create a high enough sense of urgency among the people affected by that change.
Using powerful stories, Kotter describes a distinctive view of the kind of urgency needed in every organization and explains the critical difference between true urgency, and the frantic churning that sometimes passes for urgency. The stories’ antagonists range from a 62-year-old CEO to a 27-year-old recent university graduate. Their failures are warnings, and their successes are instructive and inspirational.
Kotter provides techniques for increasing urgency with chapters on:
- Bringing the Outside in: There is a natural tendency for organizations to become too internally focused. Kotter recommends that organizations listen to their customer-interfacing employees and share external data that will challenge the parochial thinking of internal managers. He also recommends sending internal people out for exposure to customers or their counterparts in other organizations as well as inviting external perspectives in to the organization to stimulate different points of view.
- Behaving with Urgency Every Day: Kotter stresses the importance of keeping urgency in the forefront of everyone’s thinking. Even annual objectives can allow enough time for people to slip into a false sense of complacency.
- Finding Opportunities in Crises: While it is important to avoid or control crises, unexpected events frequently provide new opportunities for creative thinking and action. These crises can be used to create a greater sense of urgency.
- Dealing with No-Nos: The negativity that always looks for the barriers or reasons that an idea will not succeed must be addressed by getting rid of these reservations or by immobilizing them with social pressures.
Kotter closes his book with an admonition that “the future begins today.” A variety of problems, both organizationally and throughout our world, require our best thinking and our most urgent action. “Alertness, movement, and leadership, now …are the signs of true urgency.”
While Kotter recycles some of his previous work in this new title, he also provides important new insights and reminds the reader of the importance of addressing challenges with a sense of urgency.