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Kotter’s Sense of Urgency

by Herb Stevenson

Establishing a Sense of Urgency by examining market and competitive realities and identifying and discuss ing crises, potential crises, or major opportunities

Complacency: A common pitfall for many successful organizations is the rise of complacency. Complacency attempts to ride the good feeling of having succeeded during highly competitive or any type of crisis that potentially threatens the existence of the organization. Examples are economic downturns, such as that in 2008-9, where many organizations failed due to lack of immediate action caused by the inability to believe and act in a worst case scenario, or an explosion within a manufacturing plant that creates havoc in production as well as potential well-being of factory workers. Complacency, typically, follows after successfully navigating through one of these events and a collective sigh of relief gains momentum via stories of "having dodged the fatal bullet". The bottomline is that complacency results from believing that the organization is on the leading edge of success without ensuring that it is. New initiatives do not take root easily, competition is not studied for new inroads that could undermine or redefine the market, such as disruptive innovations, and market changes are not examined for new approaches to capture the changes rather than believe that sequential adjustments will solve whatever problems exist. Interestingly, the resistance to change rises over time as the organization creates a false sense of infallibility.


Sources of Complacency

False Urgency: Over the last two decades, one approach to overcome complacency has been to create a false sense of urgency. It is driven by pressures to perform that actually create fear, anxiety, and anger. Because it is a false sense of urgency, often created through veiled threats,  the resulting frantic activity is more distracting than useful. Unproductive noise is created that wastes time, energy, and brainpower. Often, the response is to look busy instead of to be productive. The veiled threat is neutralized with a veiled action.

In times of any real threat to the organization, such as disruptive innovations to the market which create not only replacement products, but new markets, new price structures, and a realignment of the market, false urgency misdirects the resources of the organization to more veiled action and no capacity to meet the crisis head on. Many of the recently failed organizations were directly the result of "veiled action" in respond to real threat.

A noteworthy aspect of false sense of urgency is that the organization might be highly skilled at responding to economic crisis while functioning under a false sense of urgency to market, product, or competition threats. Hence, within an economic recession, the organization might act with such deftness to startle one's sense of amazement, while laggardly and awkwardly responding to all other threats.

Sources of False Urgency

Real Sense of Urgency: A real sense of urgency motivates people to relentlessly look for ways to enhance and integrate their way of being and doing within the organization. Work that adds little value to the organization is shed rather than allow it to clog the calendars and slow down needed action. It is highly positive and highly focused energy that supports the engagement of every employee to move and win, now. There is a constant viewing of what's happening outside the organization and overlaying it with what is happening within the organization to ensure that any changes do not materialize into bonafide threats. There is a clear connection throughout the organization between the head and the heart. There is agreement about the future and why the organization should not only survive any threat, but should thrive. Hence, there is an internally driven compulsion that nurtures each employee to strive to greater heights.

To increase the real sense of urgency, the organization needs to create a strategy that creates 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-- by always focusing on what provides heart and meaning to the organization.

Some tactics to consider

Sources for Creating A Real Sense of Urgency

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