Sense of Urgency

  Sense of Urgency
by John Kotter

Right from the beginning Kotter makes it clear that urgency is not busyness, or franticness. This is important. Urgency as he is using it is a continual attention to the changing landscape, within a company and on the outside. To discerning what is important. To working on what really matters.

In one anecdote, he remarks, “This man is mistaking the enormous amount of activity as a sign of a real sense of urgency. It’s not. It’s just frenetic activity.” He goes on to say that that kind of activity actually kills true urgency.

Complacency is the enemy of urgency, and he asserts that most individuals will deny complacency exists. True urgency is focused on accomplishing something important each day. Importantly, it is not driven by fear, but rather by a deep determination.

This focus on urgency is the first of Kotter’s eight steps for leading change, as outlined in his earlier book Leading Change. Here he has pulled out that critical #1 step, as his research points to the fact that so many companies miss doing that well. His research shows what actually happens, to achieve a sense of urgency.

Complacency is satisfaction, it is a feeling about what needs to be done, or conversely, satisfaction with the status quo. A big caveat here is that those who are most complacent will most vehemently deny their actions as complacent. Rather, they present what seem to be reasonable explanations for lack of action. A history of success is a key factor which produces complacency, but even companies with a very vulnerable future can experience complacency.

False Urgency
False Urgency is rooted in anger and anxiety, and creates a lot of activity without productive results. This anger creates conflict, battles, and a list of meetings. It is often created by pressure from above, with actions that are not aimed at the root cause or real solutions.

Red flags
Long studies, task forces, delayed deadlines, in-fighting, blaming, and lack of decisions are among the list of red flags pointing to complacency or false urgency.

Change comes from visions that speak to the mind and heart. Successful communication uses experiences and opportunities conveyed in a way that makes sense to others, at an intellectual and emotional level. Employees are enrolled when the future becomes meaningful, and appealing to those it involves.

Four tactics

1) Bring the outside in

This focus for this tactic is on making sure that companies stay in touch with their environments, and don’t become too focused on internal issues. The two elements are to connect internal reality with external opportunities and hazards, and to bring in “emotionally compelling data, people, video, sights and sounds.”

The key benefit of an outward focus, is it keeps complacency at bay. The more information an organization has about the outside reality, the more they are motivated to keep up with opportunities. A big source of complacency is past success, which is no assurance of future success.

• The first recommendation is to listen to customer-facing employees, particularly in lower levels of the organization. They have first-hand experience of how customers are reacting to products and services. This requires real listening, and a willingness to hear information that may be troublesome or unexpected.

• The use of amateur video is recommended. This does not have to be a pricey production, and in fact is more compelling when it is just a tape of a customer who is happy or unhappy, speaking right into the camera. The power of this is the human story, the personal frustration, and the context of the customer. Kotter recommends frequent regular use of this kind of video.

• Don’t let leaders shield staff from troubling data is the next recommendation. Attempting to white wash bad news doesn’t provide a lasting benefit.

• Redecorate is the next item. Opulent surroundings create a false sense of complacency. Modest furnishings and vibrant visual cues that work is happening, both add to a sense of urgency.

• Send employees out, not just those in the sales department. Encourage employees from manufacturing, technology, and finance to be present with customers, getting first-hand information about their reaction to your product or service.

• Bringing customers in also adds outside information to the inside. Here an anecdote about a company’s leadership offsite, that previously involved 100% inside presenters, evolved over the years to involve 35% carefully chosen outsiders. This eventually included customers, suppliers and an analyst. In addition to the facts and stories, the simple presence of so many outsiders sent a message to the company that they were open to outside influences.

• Bring data in in the right way. The author observes that there is already plenty of data in most companies. The data needs to be sufficient, not just sporadic. At the same time it can’t create a sense of overload or overwhelm. It has to be at a size that will actually be read and digested. It should be interesting or dramatic, not just numbers. Be willing to share it widely throughout the organization.

2) Behave with urgency every day.

Urgency is not an initiative or a project. It’s a way of being. The examples cited include a manager who does this well, who conveys excitement, appreciates contribution, and expects high standards. And another whose way of meeting is unfocused, where energy is drained by distractions, tardiness and interruptions.

Some specific recommendations for leaders to behave with urgency every day include clearing the calendar, getting rid of low-priority items, delegating, and always ending a meeting with clarity about who will do what by when.

This type of leadership urgency includes patience. It isn’t a frantic, activity laden false sense of urgency. Urgency is focused on the present, yet has a healthy respect for the long term.

3) Opportunities in Crisis

In the midst of crisis, fear is often generated. The key to mobilizing an organization to consider potential opportunities is “almost always more of a heart problem than a mind problem.” The key is for leaders to engage employees with passion and determination. An effective response is a carefully considered one, not an impulsive reaction generated by panic.

These ideas for identifying opportunity, can be generated from within the organization, as long as a high level sponsor is involved.

Crisis does not naturally create a sense of urgency, necessarily. Strong leadership is still needed, to keep the focus on the opportunity. While leaders can sometimes create a crisis, or allow a problem to unfold which creates a problem, that carries a number of risks.

4) Deal with NoNos

Chronic nay-sayers, those who consistently challenge ideas, improvements, revisions to process, and enthusiasm, are named “NoNo’s.” Specifically they advocate for the status quo, which obstructs efforts to move into a state of urgency.

The most common ways of responding to these nay-sayers just don’t work. The first is co-optation. It is very difficult for leaders to enroll someone in an alternative direction, if their orientation towards status quo kills urgency and action.

The second common unsuccessful strategy is to try to exclude the NoNo from the work. By leaving NoNo’s out of the conversation, they can focus on building create a force for resistance, spending time and energy corralling the opposition.

Although skeptics bring an important balance to a conversation, the characteristic behavior of a NoNo is being closed to information. A skeptic by contrast anticipates pitfalls, predicts possible risks, and is still interested to find out more. Data will be considered.

There are three recommended strategies that leaders can sometimes be used with success. One is to distract the NoNo, by sending them on a special assignment. Preferably far away. This works best when they are paired with someone who is already committed to the course of action. The second is to get them out of the organization. Sometimes a demotion will work, but termination may be necessary. The third is to “immobilize them with social pressure.” This is done by calling out the behavior in public.


Keeping Urgency Up is the challenge, because leaders must create it over and over, and embed it in the culture. This can be particularly difficult when success has been achieved. That is the vulnerable moment for complacency to set in.

The key for leaders to maintain the sense of urgency, is to value the capacity to appreciate unexpected opportunities. This focus results in work that is highly leveraged, meaningful work, a culture that is satisfying to heart and mind, and an organization that continues to succeed in a changing world.

Summary by Janet Britcher