A Sense of Urgency is a Good Thing

Strategy + Business recently published an article that transcribed part of an interview with John Kotter of the Harvard Business School on why urgency in the face of change matters. Since most executives would agree that change is no longer a luxury, but rather a necessity, leaders need to help their companies cope with the turmoil of transformation.

Kotter, in discussing his new book A Sense of Urgency, indicates why a sense of urgency is important and what it takes to maintain that sense of urgency in a corporation. Kotter claims that a sense of urgency must be pursued relentlessly because a sense of urgency, and a sense of urgency alone, is the only way to eliminate the risk of complacency.

So how do you build that constant sense of urgency? You start by driving an organizational culture built on the belief that change is not only desirable but something that is to be pursued relentlessly. The steps Kotter recommends are to:

  • allow outside influences in,
  • encourage change on a daily basis,
  • look for opportunities that arise in a crisis, and
  • adeptly manage the “no-no’s” — the employees who insist that change efforts won’t work.

Why is change so important? Things have changed drastically since the end of WWI. Consider the quote from a DuPont executive who said that “After World War II we had a product line that was technologically relevant for 20 years. Nowadays, none of mine last five years.” As soon as your product hits the market, it’s already in the obsolescence phase of its life-cycle. Success in today’s market is growth, not holding your own. And, the newer, smaller companies that succeed are the ones who realized that change must be the driving force of their business plan and day-to-day operations.

What needs to happen to get change moving? According to Kotter, you have to take the Gerstner approach. When Louis Gerstner became CEO of IBM in the early 1990s, the company was hugely complacent. And he told everyone, “We’re going to win. We might not win the series, but we are going to win the next game. We aren’t going to take days off — that’s not how you get there. That’s not how you make big things happen. I’m not asking you to work 200 hours a week and die. What you’ve got to do is take all the junk that you’re doing right now — and trust me, you’re doing lots of junk — and get rid of it, purge it, delegate it, whatever.” Once you do that, all of a sudden there’s more time to pay attention to opportunities and hazards and to do that consistently, without fail and without letup.”