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A Sense of Urgency Hardcover – August 5, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Author and international business consultant Kotter (Leading Change, Our Iceberg is Melting) returns with an engaging look at companies that need to overcome a lack of urgency-or a surfeit of complacency-with a proactive agenda. Kotter dissects well his seemingly simple premise, using his professional experiences to examine the inner workings of real companies. Kotter defines his terms with clear language and bullet lists, convincingly asserting that urgency "is not driven by a belief that... everything is a mess but, instead, that the world contains great opportunities and great hazards"; it is, in fact, "a compulsive determination to move, and win, now." Among suggested tactics: bring the outside world into overly insular work teams; make your deeds consistent with your words; view crises as potential opportunities; and disseminate data that "feels interesting, surprising, or dramatic," as opposed to "information so antiseptic that it flows in and out of short-term memory with great speed." Great examples illustrate real-life frustrations and successes, and a special section on dealing with the nay-sayers is full of practical ploys to overcome dissent and kill complacency.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
*Starred Review* Change can strike fear in the hearts and minds of businesspeople, whether frontline employee or C-suite executive. Harvard Business School professor Kotter is the master of change, hammering home his eight principles straightforwardly (Leading Change, 1996) and via fable (Our Iceberg Is Melting, 2006). Now Kotter identifies the single biggest factor to successful change, which also happens to be his number-one principle: creating a true sense of urgency. In a way that will resonate with those charged with carrying out new corporate strategies or implementing transformation, he details one streamlined strategy—appeal to the head and the heart—with four supporting tactics: bring the outside reality in, behave with true urgency every day, selectively look for upside possibilities in crises, and effectively confront what he calls the no-no’s. Stories accompany all; unfortunately, a number are repeats from The Heart of Change (2002) and stripped of detail for confidentiality. Charts and chapter summaries help connect theory to the practical question: How do we move people to act? An easy, quick read that provides good elucidation of what makes change work. --Barbara Jacobs
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Top Customer Reviews
As a follow-up Kotter has written A Sense of Urgency. In this 2008 book he clearly makes his point in the six page preface and the first three chapters that take up 61 of the 196 total pages of primary text. That is all you need to read to benefit from his VIP's [short for very important points].
Here are some of the VIP's:
*The single biggest error people make when they try to craft change is they do not "create a high enough sense of urgency among enough people to set the stage for making a challenging leap into some new direction." [viii]
*Our biggest challenge is complacency. "We underestimate its power and its prevalence." 
*Our second biggest challenge is a false sense of urgency. "A false sense of urgency is pervasive and insidious because people mistake activity for productivity." 
*To increase a true sense of urgency, "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. 
To create a real sense of urgency I entreat you to go forward and do likewise. What is your first step to create a real sense of urgency in your congregation or other ministry setting?
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.
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....