A Sense of Urgency

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By John P. Kotter
Harvard Business Press, 2008, 208 pages

In a time of global economic crisis, it might seem superfluous to read a book about the importance of a sense of urgency in organizational change. But John P. Kotter, the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership Emeritus at Harvard Business School, would argue that such current events have a tendency to promote what he calls a false sense of ur­gency. This condition com­pels people who are “anxious, angry, and frustrated” to indulge in frenetic activity that includes nonstop meetings and wall-to-wall PowerPoint presentations, but the same people are often focused on myriad internal issues that work at cross-purposes.

In A Sense of Urgency, Kotter expands on an idea from his 2002 book, The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations. He argues that only a true sense of urgency can replace the complacency that pervades most organizations. This true urgency is one that energizes people with a “powerful desire to move and win, now.” Kotter outlines one strategy and four tactics for creating such an attitude. The strategy is to focus relentlessly on external issues and actions, to make progress every day, and to purge low-value activities, focusing on people’s hearts rather than their minds. The first of the four tactics is to “bring the outside in,” by using emotionally compelling means to dramatize what is happening in the external world; the second is to personally behave with urgency every day; the third is to find opportunities in crisis; and the fourth is to deal with the “NoNos” — people who continually downplay the need for urgency.

The strategy and tactics for creating urgency are well illustrated by stories and cases in a book that has been designed for light reading. Yet it is disappointing to once again see “complacency” raised to the status of a root cause of ineffectual change efforts. Like the charges of “greed and corruption” on Wall Street, “complacency” is an emotionally satisfying accusation, but hardly the best starting point for the search for complex causes and their remedies. People become complacent for many reasons, including experiencing contextual constraints and social incentives that maintain their behavior. Until we understand and address these constraints and the social determinants of behavior, complacency will always be with us.

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