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A Sense of Urgency by John Kotter

I have just finished reading A sense of urgency by John Kotter. A useful book when dealing with an agile transition.

John Kotter is author of Leading Change, published in 1996 and still a business book bestseller. In that book he presented eight steps in leading change in an organization – the first step presented was to develop a sense of urgency. Kotter believed that topic was so critical that he followed up with this new book specifically dedicated to developing a sense of urgency.

The book is useful to help make clear distinction between a real sense of urgency, a false sense of urgency, and complacency. After explaining at length the difference between these 3 situations and providing clear examples, Kotter provides tactics to deal with complacency and false sense of urgency in order to convert them into a real sense of urgency.

Although the book is dry – don’t read it just before going to bed – it is well written and fairly concise.

The first section of the book focuses on what is described as a “false sense of urgency.” Kotter characterizes people with this attitude as feeling that change must be made but whose actions aren’t very helpful. 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“. “A false sense of urgency is pervasive and insidious because people mistake activity for productivity“.

The biggest challenge facing people who try to create a sense of urgency within the organization is “complacency”. “We underestimate its power and its prevalence“.

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 implement strategies to address these situations, the author he suggests the following tactics: 

  • Bring the outside in with engaging information so that the outside is acknowledged, understood, and acted on. 
  • Demonstrate urgency every day as a leader and expect everyone else to do the same. 
  • Find appropriate opportunities to change and improve from crises that threaten the organization. 
  • Wall off, neutralize, or eliminate those who oppose or slow down change for no good reason. 

In summary, taken via Book Excerpt: A Sense of Urgency — HBS Working Knowledge.

Big Mistake Number 1: Assuming that crises inevitably will create the sense of urgency needed to perform better.

Big Mistake Number 2: Going over the line with a strategy that creates an angry backlash because people feel manipulated.

Big Mistake Number 3: Passively sitting and waiting for a crisis (which many never come).

It is a good book to help you transform your organization.

Big Mistake Number 4: Underestimating what the people who would avoid crises at all costs correctly appreciate: that crisis can bring disaster.

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One Comment Post a comment
  1. A nice summary of the approach – we are great believers in the Kotter approach and the whole Make it Essential.

    Another big mistake I would add to the list is “assuming a contractual commitment creates a sense of urgency”. Time and again we see corporate deals signed and projects delivering against contractual milestones. When we investigate what has been done to create the sense of urgency the alarm bells ring when people answer “we don’t have an option, because it’s in the contract!”.

    There is always an option 😉

    March 22, 2012

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