A Sense of Urgency is a book that is sorely needed in today's times as the difference between urgency and change will make the difference between survival and liquidation in today's economy. Executives need to recognize the difference between the two. Urgency creates a motivating force on results and teaming. Change is imposed from above, the subject of skepticism and Dilbert cartoons.
Every organization needs to change, that is commonly understood and the subject of endless books, including those by John Kotter. We have become complacent in our approaches to change management as every one of those books deals with change as a process, an event something that happens and then happens again at a latter date. This gives executives the belief that there is a change management recipe, based on principles like the burning platform, communication, and executive sponsorship. That recipe has lost its meaning and its time for use to change the approach to change management.
I recommend this book to any executive, manager, team leader, and concerned professional as a way for them to lead and create results in a powerful way. The book is easily read over a weekend, a couple of airplane rides, etc. The charts and tools are clearly presented and actionable. Overall a must read part of any management library.
Why? Because change has lost its potency. It's become routine and we have lost sight of its fundamental roots. Change and enterprises have become internally focused, concerned with themselves, their processes, their investments etc.
Kotter reminds us that the root of success involves sense of Urgency. Urgency is the highly positive and focused forces that give people the determination to move and win now. It's a simple definition but one that is powerful and well executed throughout the book.
A sense of urgency is a focused book concentrating on the actions and practices involved in creating and sustaining a sense of urgency. Kotter provides four core tactics for driving urgency into an organization. These tactics are supported by anecdotal stories and detailed tools which make the book actionable and practical. The tactics are:
' Bring the outside in
' Behave with urgency every day
' Find opportunity in crisis
' Deal with NoNo's
This can give the reader the sense that there is `a recipe for urgency' and I guess that is unavoidable, but internalizing the books message you can readily get a sense of how this all fits into your context.
The strengths of the book centered on its clear and focused organization of these ideas in a way that Executives can easily read on a plane ride or afternoon and apply these practices right away. Kotter accompanies each Urgency Tactic with the details that not only make it real, but also really applicable. Here is a detailed example for the first tactic:
Bring the outside in:
a. Recognize the pervasive problem of internal focus
b. Listen to customer-interfacing employees
c. Use the power of video
d. Don't always shield people from troubling data
f. Send people out
g. Bring people in
h. Bring data in, but in the right way
i. Watch out that you don't create a false sense of urgency
Each sub tactic contains a focused page and a half discussion of what they are and how leaders can implement the idea. This detail and its presentation is what really distinguishes the book and brings something new to the debate.
The book's primary weakness is that it is not specific in their examples. There are discussions of nondescript companies that dilute rather than support the messages. Most of the case stories do not have a conclusion - the results companies were able to achieve. This makes the examples more fables that case studies. It's really a shame as strong specific stories are the one thing that is missing that would make this a killer book.
Finally, there are some surprising gaps in the book that by themselves do not diminish the book, but in total they certainly take away from its power. First the book does not recognize that there are other approaches to change management and urgency. This denies the reader the ability to put A Sense of Urgency in the context of the broader literature. This is really unfortunate as this book should replace some ideas and enhance others - Kotter leaves that up to the reader rather than providing a recommendation. Second, the book has no index, which not only makes it tougher to use after the fact, but also is a silly omission.
Years ago, Stephen Covey suggested that many (most?) executives spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough on what is important. In Chapter 1 of this book, John Kotter suggests that, in fact, the problem is that many (most?) workers -- including executives -- do not have "a true sense of urgency [that is a] highly positive and highly focused force [and] the result of people, up and down the hierarchy, who provide the leadership needed to create and re-create this increasingly important asset. These sorts of people use a strategy that aims at the heart as well as the mind. They use four sets of tactics." Kotter devotes the balance of his book to explaining what the strategy and tactics are, why they are essential to the success of individuals as well as to the success of their organization, and how those who read his book can execute the strategy and tactics to achieve the given objectives, whatever they may be.
As I read this book, I was reminded of recent research conducted by the Gallup Organization indicating that 29% of the U.S. workforce is engaged (i.e. loyal, enthusiastic, and productive) whereas 55% is passively disengaged. That is, they are going through the motions, doing only what they must, "mailing it in," coasting, etc. What about the other 16%? They are "actively disengaged" in that they are doing whatever they can to undermine their employer's efforts to succeed. They have a toxic impact on their associates and, in many instances, on customer relations. These are stunning statistics. How to explain them? Reasons vary from one organization to the next. However, most experts agree that no more than 5% of any given workforce consists of "bad apples," troublemakers, chronic complainers, subversives, etc. How to get as many as possible among the other 50% to become positively engaged?
It is important to note that, for many years, Kotter has conducted rigorous and extensive research of his own on employee engagement and has a wide and deep range of hands-on experience with hundreds of major corporations that were either planning change initiatives or had only recently embarked on them. In three of his published works (Leading Change, The Heart of Change with Dan Cohen, and Our Iceberg Is Melting), he explains why more than 70% of change initiatives fail. "The number-one problem [organizations] have is all about creating a sense of urgency - and that's the first step in a series of actions needed to succeed in a changing world...Winners first make sure that a sufficient number of people feel a true sense of urgency to look for an organization's critical opportunities and hazards now." It is not that Kotter disagrees with Covey. On the contrary. If I understand what Kotter shares in this book, one of his key points is that workers must devote most of their time to what is most important...and do so by creating and recreating "a true sense of urgency" at all levels and in all areas.
In this context, I am reminded of a hospital emergency room. Its success requires adequate resources as well as a highly skilled staff with cross-functional capabilities. All of its members share "a true sense of urgency" when responding to all manner of health crises. More often than not, they are treating strangers about whom they know little (if anything) and sometimes must deal with a life-or-death situation. There is no time for complacency. Everyone must be fully engaged. For the ER team to be successful, its members must be both intellectually and emotionally committed to assist those entrusted to their care. There is no place on the team for anyone who is unwilling and/or unable to accept these responsibilities. Kotter's point (and I wholeheartedly agree) is that no team can succeed unless and until each of its members feels as well as understands "a true sense of urgency" and that is as true of executives and those on the shop floor as it is of ERs. "Get that right and you are off to a great start. Get that right and you can produce results that you very much want, and the world very much needs."
The other three tactics are best revealed within Kotter's narrative, in context. Now I wish to shift my attention to some material in Chapter 6 as Kotter discusses two perspectives on the nature of crises. "The first group, by far the larger, sees crises as horrid events, and for obvious reasons." Therefore, every effort is to avoid them or at least to prepare for them with comprehensive plans for crisis management and damage control. "A very different perspective on the nature of crises is described with the metaphor of a `burning platform.' In this view, crises are not necessarily bad and may, under certain conditions, actually be required to succeed in an increasingly changing world." Which perspective is correct? "Neither," Kotter responds, and then he explains various downside risks of a damage control mind-set or when using a crisis to reduce complacency and create. Again, what he recommends is best revealed within the narrative. However, I want to reassure those who read this brief commentary that Kotter fully appreciates the potential value of that contingency planning and crisis management. (He is a world-renowned expert on both.) He also clearly aware of problems that could occur when crying "Wolf!" in the absence of such a threat. In this context, his objective is to help his reader to understand how and why there are times when judicious use of created crisis can be appropriate. That said, "any naiveté about the downside risks can cause disaster" and for that reason, he identifies and briefly discusses four "Big Mistakes" (Pages 136-141) and then suggests that crises can be used to create true urgency if eight principles he recommends are followed. (Please see Pages 142-143.) In a world in which change is the only constant and seems to be occurring at an every-increasing velocity, Kotter notes that "finding opportunities in crises probably reduces your overall risk." It seems to me that in this chapter, Kotter explores a previously neglected dimension of crisis of management, and once again, he indicates still other applications of the eight-step pattern introduced in the aforementioned earlier books, Leading Change, The Heart of Change with Dan Cohen, and Our Iceberg Is Melting.
In Chapter 9, he shares his thoughts about how to sustain a high sense of urgency in an organization. That is indeed a major challenge, especially when thinking in terms of doing so throughout an entire enterprise. Obviously, leadership is needed at all levels and in all areas. "The ultimate solution to the problem of urgency dropping after successes is to create the right culture. This is especially true as we move from a world in which change is most episodic to a world in which change is continuous." Completing that transition is never easy but is far easier in what Kotter characterizes as "the right culture." Although significantly different in most ways, all high-performance companies seem to have a culture in which a majority of those involved take pride in what they achieve but are convinced that there is always room for improvement, that they can always do better. They are never satisfied. They view mistakes, errors, detours, dry wells, blind alleys, etc. as valuable learning opportunities. Their change initiatives to sustain improvement tend to be customer-driven and with, you guessed it, "a true sense of urgency."
Is this also true of your culture? If not, I urge you to read this book first and then each of the other three (Leading Change, The Heart of Change with Dan Cohen, and then Our Iceberg Is Melting) to prepare yourself to attract and engage others in urgently needed change initiatives. If not now, when? If not you, who?
Meanwhile, tick tock, tick tock, tick tock, tick tock....
on December 27, 2010
While complacency is a major stumbling block to progress in any large organization, Kotter promotes "creating a crisis" to get everyone moving. His ideal manager will constantly be pushing for immediate and draconian change, heedless of the nay-sayers standing in his way. His advice to this manager is to forget facts and reasoning, but to appeal to the hearts of his staff with touching personal antedotes and generalizations. Kotter does just that in this book.
I was left understanding the need to push for progress (well, duh) and insist on results (not a revelation either) but totally unconvinced that fabricating urgency to drive my subordinates harder is a good long term solution. He poo-pahs six sigma and other more structured improvement processes and recommends trawling the internet and reiterating what your golfing buddy told you on Sunday.
His approach does remind me of managers I have known who give great speeches that get everyone fired up. Unfortunately, when they leave the auditorium, no one knows what to do. The constant crisis mode does not lead to the best long term plans. Nor does constantly driving your subordintes for more, faster, NOW NOW NOW result in anything but burn-out husks of people who have abandoned their families and personal lives for months to reach an objective, only to hear "that is just the start - we need to push harder."
Today's workforce is increasingly made up of intelligent, commited people who are willing to work to live, not live to work. Manipulation, hubris and arrogance will not get you far with this group. It won't get you anywhere with me either.
This short 190 page book has about 10 pages of useful information.
on March 21, 2010
This book is a scam, no doubt knocked out by the author on his laptop while he waited for airplanes, travelling between speaking engagements. The first tipoff came in the "preface", where the author said so many people had contributed to this work that giving any of them credit by naming them would be inadequate and pointless. Go ahead; read the book and tell me where you see anything that looks like someone else shared knowledge, research, insight, or anything with this guy. Not in this book.
The contents of the book can be distilled down to maybe a page worth of the author's ideas: organizations that don't have a sense of urgency might either be complacent (based on previous success) or be exhibiting a false urgency - lots of meetings and committees and PowerPoint presentations and stress and anger. A real sense of urgency, the author explains, is identifiable by its embrace of every flaccid buzzword that has trickled out of graduate school in the last decade.
To use one of this author's favorite tropes - stating a fatuous statistic about some bland generality (he likes 70%) - I would venture to say that 70% of the people who bought this book have not read it (or couldn't stay awake long enough to read it). Seventy percent of its purchasers no doubt strategically place this slim volume, front cover out, on their book shelves or credenzas so that the ominous-sounding title will have a talisman-like effect on their co-workers who wander into their offices, thus instilling in the organization this magical sense of urgency.
P.S. Not quite believing that this book actually was on the NY Times Bestseller list, I did some research online, and it turns out this guy has written three other books - all about the same simplistic idea! One of the titles is a cutesy parable called, "Our Iceberg is Melting!" (Ooooh, do you think he read "Somebody Moved My Cheese"? and thought, "Hey, here's another way to repackage my boffo idea and sell some more books!").
I have read plenty of bad books in my time, but I very rarely am moved to write scathing reviews. An affront to common sense and the craft of authorship of this magnitude deserves my best efforts at warning others to use their time and money more productively.
on August 12, 2008
One of my long term favourite expressions is "set a pace you can maintain forever but sense of urgency wins". Sense of urgency is very much tied to Time Management. People and companies with a sense of urgency win. Its that simple.
Sense of urgency has been one of my secret tricks over the years. Now, John Kotter has written a very simple, fast, easy to read book on the topic called "A Sense of Urgency" that not only explains why we need a sense of urgency but explains strategy and tactics on how to develop it and make it real.
Kotter especially speaks of the need for urgency in times of change.
He also speaks of the dangers of false urgency - how to identify it and deal with it. All appearances of high activity and action are not neccessarily true or positive urgency.
Some text from the book (greatly summarized):
Crucial first step in his framework: creating a sense of urgency by getting people to actually see and feel the need for change.
1. If a sense of urgency is not high enough, everything else becomes so much more difficult.
2. Success easily produces complacency.
3. The opposite of urgency is not only complacency. Itâ(tm)s also a false or misguided sense of urgency that is as prevalent today as complacency itself and even more insidious.
4. Mistaking what you might call false urgency from real urgency is a huge problem today. People constantly see the frenzied action, assume that it represents true urgency.
5. It most certainly is possible to recognize false urgency and complacency and transform each into a true sense of urgency. There is a strategy.
6. Urgency is becoming increasingly important because change is shifting from episodic to continuous.
Put simply a strong sense of urgency is moving from an essential element in big change programs to an essential asset in general.
The number one problem they have is all about creating a sense of urgency - and that's the first step in a series of actions needed to succeed in a changing world.
False urgency is a condition that is very different from complacency. While complacency embraces the status quo, false urgency can be filled with new activities. While complacency often has a sort of sleepy quality, false urgency is filled with energy. False urgency is built on a platform of anxiety and anger.
Anxiety and anger drive behavior that can be highly energetic - which is why people mistake false for true urgency. But the energy from anger and anxiety can easily create activity, not productivity.
Create action that is exceptionally alert, externally oriented, relentlessly aimed at winning, making some progress each and every day, and constantly purging low value-added activities - all by always focusing on the heart and not just the mind.
The Tactics (you really have to read to book to understand these)
1. Bring the Outside in
2. Behave with Urgency Every Day
3. Find Opportunity in Crises
4. Deal with the NoNos
Speed will only increase. A sense of urgency will only become more essential.
on August 20, 2008
John Kotter, professor emeritus of the Harvard Business School, has just written his newest book, A Sense of Urgency. It's an excellent explication of the first tenet of Kotter's now well known 8-step change theory (From his book Leading Change):
1. Establish a sense of urgency.
2. Create a guiding coalition.
3. Develop a vision and a strategy.
4. Communicate the change vision.
5. Empower employees for broad-based action.
6. Generate short-term wins.
7. Consolidate gains and produce more change.
8. Anchor new approaches in the culture.
Kotter believes that urgency is critical to this whole process; simply put, no urgency--no change.
Kotter drills down into the weeds on establishing a sense of urgency and gives the reader some clear reasons for improving companies:
Successful companies tend to be complacent and do little; companies that raise a false sense of urgency run around like chickens with their heads cut off--frazzled; only those companies working off a true sense of urgency tend to produce change that matters. Kotter further explains that complacent and under-fire companies are too focused on the internal (strengths and weaknesses) and very little on the external threats and opportunities. If you'll recall the well-known strategic planning mantra S.W.O.T (Strengths, Weakness, Opportunity and Threats), Kotter's urgency theory makes a lot of sense. Again, the progressive and productive companies look not just inward but especially outward--at how opportunity and threats must be faced squarely.
To increase this sense of urgency, the author provides a simple but effective strategy: "Create action that is exceptionally alert, externally oriented, relentlessly aimed at winning, making some progress each and every day and constantly purging low value-added activities--all by always focusing on the heart and not just the mind."
You'll need to read the book for the valuable detail that Kotter provides. The following is a cursory overview:
1. Bring the outside in (connect to the customer and the world outside the corporate walls).
2. Behave urgently every day (make urgency--not anxiety or anger--part of the culture focused on external opportunities and threats).
3. Find opportunity in crisis (be careful but look for opportunity in the midst of any crisis).
4. Deal with the NoNos who block change (neutralize and remove those urgency-killers, who will keep the group in a deadly complacent static state in an ever-changing world. Healthy skeptics are not a threat, but the NoNos are).
Kotter has hit the nail squarely in this easy-to-read book. Having seen all sorts of companies up close, I think Kotter has described a practical method for getting people to be productive--by creating a real sense of urgency.