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JOHN KOTTER is an emeritus professor of leadership at Harvard Business School. He specializes in issues
of corporate leadership and change. He has published eighteen books including Leading Change, The Heart
of Change and Our Iceberg is Melting. Dr. Kotter, a graduate of MIT and Harvard, has received a number of
awards for business leadership and graduate business school curriculum design.
Dr. Kotter’s Web site is at

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A Sense of Urgency - Page 1

Urgency is a gut level determination to move and win – to make the right things happen today. Until and unless an organization
creates a high enough sense of urgency amongst a large enough group of people, it will flounder. When that sense of urgency exists,
even organizations which are facing formidable obstacles can and will produce solid results.
To achieve more, raise the level of urgency which exists inside your organization. You do this by winning the hearts and the hearts of
your people. Bulk up and enhance your urgency level and all kinds of good things will result.
“Creating a high enough sense of urgency among a large enough group of people is an issue I have come to believe is of overriding
importance in a fast-moving, turbulent era. When the urgency challenge is not handled well, even very capable people and
resource-rich organizations can suffer greatly. When the challenge is handled well, even those who face formidable obstacles can
produce results we all want for our careers, employers and nations. Put simply, a strong sense of urgency is moving from an essential
element in big change programs to an essential asset in general.”
– John Kotter

1. Why urgency is so important . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Page 2

Unless your organization has a true sense of urgency, no
changes will ever get made. That can have fatal consequences
in a business environment that’s changing all the time. A Sense of
Everything starts with a sense of urgency. It lies at the heart of Urgency
every change an organization attempts to make.

2. Genuine urgency vs. Fake urgency . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Page 3

Complacency and false urgency are the opposite of a true Fake Genuine
sense of urgency. These are highly destructive in nature. Be
very clear about your need to differentiate when a true and A Sense of
genuine sense of urgency is required and act accordingly. Urgency

Destructive Constructive

3. One strategy and four tactics for increasing urgency . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Pages 4 - 7

To create a genuine sense of urgency within your organization,
aim at winning your people’s minds and hearts. That is, give
them the facts but also communicate stories that will win over A Sense of
their emotions. If you give stretch goals that excite and arouse Head Heart
determination, you’ll appeal to their hearts as well as their

To make this strategy work, there are four tactics you can and 1 Find ways to bring the outside in
should use.
2 Act urgently today and every day
A Sense of
3 Look for opportunity in every crisis

4 Deal effectively with the naysayers

4. Sustaining a sense of urgency . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Page 8

Whenever you have a short-term success, everyone relaxes a Increase Embed in
little. It becomes harder to keep your urgency levels high. To culture
offset that, anticipate this is going to happen and prepare. Work A Sense of
to embed a keen sense of urgency into the fabric of your Urgency
organization’s culture and DNA. Create a culture where
Decrease wins
urgency is the norm and not the exception.
A Sense of Urgency - Page 2

In all, the advantages of urgency are clear, obvious and

A Sense of compelling. Lots of good things happen when urgency is present
1 Why urgency is so important
Urgency and loads of opportunities to grow will get passed over when
urgency is missing.
Unless your organization has a true sense of urgency, no
This is noteworthy because urgency in companies is actually
changes will ever get made. That can have fatal consequences
quite rare. It’s uncommon for a sense of urgency to be there all
in a business environment that’s changing all the time.
the time. It generally has to be created and then recreated
Everything starts with a sense of urgency. It lies at the heart of
periodically, Otherwise, business-as-usual tends to reign
every change an organization attempts to make.
When people have a sense of urgency:
n They are proactive in doing things which will meet present
A Sense of challenges or position for emerging opportunities.
Urgency n They look for ways to launch smart projects and initiatives
which will move the organization forward.
n They tend to be both focused and motivated.
In business, all the good stuff that happens begins because a n They are invigorated by what they’re doing rather than
sense of urgency exists. When people within an organization becoming prone to burnout or other problems.
have a true sense of urgency, they think action is needed now The opposite of a sense of urgency is complacency – people are
rather than when it can be fitted more easily into a schedule. A content with the status quo and are unwilling to pay any attention
sense of urgency compels people to try and make some solid to anything which is beyond the scope of their present set of
progress every day rather than when they get around to it. activities. People who are complacent won’t look at new
Urgency is a gut-level determination to move forward and to win opportunities, even if they are wonderful. Internal complacency
right here right now. can create a disaster scenario for any organization when the
When an organization has a genuine sense of urgency: marketplace changes quickly.
1. Everyone starts looking for immediate opportunities to make There is also such a thing as a “false sense of urgency”. Most
a difference and for ways to get ahead. frequently, this will be characterized by lots of energetic-looking
activity which looks good on the surface but produces no
2. People start to identify what the critical issues are and come
genuine forward movement at the end of the day. This kind of
forward to get involved in implementing those needed
behavior tends to be driven by the pressures that fuel anxiety or
sometimes anger – people are doing things because they feel
3. Leaders work hard to come up with viable strategies for that’s the right thing to do. A false sense of urgency is dangerous
tackling high-value issues. because it can drain the organization of its energy. Everyone
4. All the teams which get formed will relentlessly communicate gets so busy doing all kinds of activities that nobody steps back
their visions and strategies so as to generate buy-in from the and asks whether those activities are, in fact, generating the
rest of the organization. results which are required.
5. People will feel empowered and committed to removing A sense of urgency is not supported by an adrenalin rush. It has
obstacles which hold the organization back. nothing to do with sitting through meeting after meeting. Instead,
6. There will be an overwhelming desire to achieve some quick true urgency focuses on critical issues. The driving motivation for
wins in order to disarm critics and cynics. true urgency is a determination to win rather than anxiety about
losing or a desire to keep up appearances. When you have a
7. Everyone will refuse to let the organization slide back into its bona fide sense of urgency, you set out to try and accomplish
business-as-usual habits. something important every day. You focus on doing what’s
8. There will be an ongoing desire to graft all necessary important rather than anything and everything which comes to
changes into the systems and culture of the organization mind.
moving forward.

Complacency False sense of urgency True sense of urgency

Description Often pervasive and invisible Mistaken for true sense of urgency Rare but very important

Roots Success over a period of time Recent dramatic failures Leaders who create urgency

People Think “I know what to do, and do it” “What a mess we’re in now” “Great opportunities and hazards”

People Feel Content with the status quo Anxious, frustrated Powerful desire to move and win

Unchanged activity or inactivity Frantic activity level but lots of wheel Targeted activity on urgent activities
levels as the case may be spinning and not much of value around important issues
A Sense of Urgency - Page 3

Obviously, the scenario just detailed is something of a nightmare

A Sense of created by too much complacency and false urgency. If there
2 Genuine urgency vs. Fake urgency
Urgency had been a true sense of urgency, everything probably would
have played out quite differently:
Complacency and false urgency are the opposite of a true sense
n The senior management team would have felt compelled to
of urgency. These are highly destructive in nature. Be very clear
focus on the key strategic issues themselves rather than
about your need to differentiate when a true and genuine sense
delegating this to outside consultants.
of urgency is required and act accordingly.
n Once problems were clarified, the senior management team
would have become the task force to bring about needed
False Genuine n Everyone would have cancelled their other appointments so
they could focus on the greatest priority task facing the firm as
A Sense of
soon as possible.
n At the first meeting of the task force, the CEO would stand and
say: “We are in an unsustainable position at present. It’s clear
Destructive Constructive
we need to change both the product development and selling
processes. We can’t delay making changes any longer. Let’s
The warning signals you might be dealing with a situation which discuss how we can use this challenge as an opportunity to
involves complacency or a false sense of urgency are: leapfrog all our competitors and get into a strong position for
the future. And let’s table some suggested projects we can get
n Rather than saying “We have to deal with this situation as fast started immediately to move in the right direction”.
as possible to position ourselves for the future”, the senior
management team talks to consulting firms and solicits n The ideas made at the first meeting would start to happen
proposals from them. even before the second meeting took place a week later.
n When a consultant finally gets appointed, it takes them about In other words, a genuine sense of urgency can have a huge
a year to come up with a draft of a new strategy for your firm. impact. At a practical level, it can mean the difference between
This new strategy is developed by the consultant with only wasting time on departments shooting at each other and
limited input from those who will have hands-on involvement. everyone collaborating to come up with the best way for the firm
Despite that, the CEO and the board of directors like it and feel to move forward in the future. A genuine sense of urgency can be
confident this is the way forward out of the morass the firm is immensely constructive whereas a false sense of urgency can
currently bogged down in. be equally destructive.
n A task force is chosen to roll out the new strategy and put the “Very, very smart people can be astonishingly complacent in the
firm back on a sound footing. Tellingly, the CEO is not a face of needed change. There are many reasons, and none
member of the task force. more important than historical success. With sufficient success,
n It takes the new task force about a month to hold its first the threats from outside are, or once were conquered. With no
planning meeting because everyone is busy. need to focus outward, eyes shift inward to manage a larger and
larger organization. Competitive instincts can also easily turn
n When the task force gets together, nobody is certain what the
inward, creating bureaucratic politics. As a result, new problems
suggested new strategy actually is. Nobody has had the time
or opportunities in the outside world are not seen clearly, if at all.
to read and understand the 100-plus-page document the
Complacency grows, leading to even less interest in or focus on
consultants generated in order to justify their fees.
outside reality, leading to still more complacency”.
n It takes another four weeks for the task force to meet again – John Kotter
because everyone has prior commitments.
“At the very beginning of any effort to make changes of any
n Everyone at the second meeting agrees the firm’s competitive
magnitude, if a sense of urgency is not high enough and
position is getting worse. There is widespread discussion
complacency is not low enough, everything else becomes so
about who is to blame but no agreement on what, if anything,
much more difficult”.
to do about it.
– John Kotter
n At the third meeting of the task force, it is decided to form a
sub committee who will be responsible for communicating the “With a false sense of urgency, an organization does have a
new strategy to the rest of the firm. It has taken around six great deal of energized action, but it’s driven by anxiety, anger,
months to get to this position. and frustration, and not a focused determination to win, and win
n Frustrated by the lack of progress, the CEO starts sitting on as soon as is reasonably possible. With false urgency, the action
the task force meetings. This makes everyone nervous and a has a frantic feeling: running from meeting to meeting, producing
flurry of projects get launched. The vice president of sales volumes of paper, moving rapidly in circles, all with a
ends up giving a sixty-slide PowerPoint presentation which dysfunctional orientation that often prevents people from
concludes the problems are all in product development. This exploiting key opportunities and addressing gnawing problems.
sets off a frenzy of activity in product development. None of Mistaking what you might call false urgency from real urgency is
this activity is dedicated to understanding what customers a huge problem today. People constantly see the frenzied action,
want, building better products or responding to the assume that it represents true urgency, and then move ahead,
competition. Instead, product development gets busy trying to only to encounter problems and failures not unlike what would
defend its own turf as aggressively as possible. happen if they were surrounded by complacency”.
– John Kotter
A Sense of Urgency - Page 4

A Sense of One strategy and four tactics A Sense of

3 Head Heart
Urgency for increasing urgency Urgency

To create a genuine sense of urgency within your organization,

aim at winning your people’s minds and hearts. That is, give
them the facts but also communicate stories that will win over Information by itself A logical case which is
their emotions. If you give stretch goals that excite and arouse – the best data and logic also encompassed in a
determination, you’ll appeal to their hearts as well as their minds. which is available. This can heart-engaging experience which
win over the minds and communicates stretch goals
thoughts of the people requiring determination
A Sense of involved.
Head Heart

To make this strategy work, there are four tactics you can and To create a genuine sense of urgency by appealing to both the
should use. head and the heart, there are four general tactics which you can
and should use:
1 Find ways to bring the outside in
Tactic 1 Find ways to bring the outside in
2 Act urgently today and every day
A Sense of
Urgency Instead of merely assembling data and dumping it on people,
3 Look for opportunity in every crisis
find effective ways to inject some of the outside realities of the
4 Deal effectively with the naysayers marketplace into groups that are too inwardly focused. By doing
this, you allow everyone to realign their internal conditions with
the opportunities and hazards which exist in the real world of
A genuine sense of urgency is created only when people buy-in
with both their heads and their hearts. It can never be generated It’s very easy for an organization to be inwardly focused. There is
by a fact-filled business case alone because that approach a natural tendency towards internal focus. To reduce the gap
caters only to the intellectual side of the brain. People need to between what’s happening on the outside and what people see
feel the need for change before anything worthwhile will happen. and feel inside your organization, there are several ideas to try:
n Talk about the inside-outside problem – make everyone
“Underlying a true sense of urgency is a set of feelings: a aware having an internal focus can be a big problem. Past
compulsive determination to move, and win, now. When it comes successes can mean a “we know best” culture results
to affecting behavior, feelings are more influential than thoughts. especially if you work for a large organization. Explain to
This is a perspective that is rarely acknowledged in the everyone an internal focus might mean you miss the subtle
classroom or the boardroom. For centuries, we have had the warning signs of new opportunities and hazards and therefore
expression in English, ‘Great leaders win over the hearts and everyone should seek outside information about threats and
minds of others’. The expression is not, ‘Great leaders win over opportunities on an ongoing basis.
the minds of others’. More interesting yet, the expression is not
that great leaders win the minds and hearts of others. Heart n Listen to your employees who interact with customers –
comes first”. enshrine them as experts because they are face-to-face with
– John Kotter customers every day. Make it easy for information to flow from
these people to decision makers, even if you’re talking about
Winning over the head with logical facts is important but by itself entry-level employees. Ask them questions all the time and
all this generally produces is a flurry of nonproductive behavior. listen carefully to what they say.
To generate a true sense of urgency, you have to provide an n Create videos about your customers that you can show
experience that is very much aimed at the heart. The internally – the problems they are having with your products
determination to move and to win now comes when goals are and the creative ways they are using what you sell them. If you
discussed which are analytically sound but are also equally can show people what’s really happening, this can have a
ambitious in their scope to help people do things which are dramatic impact on what people do.
meaningful and exhilarating.
n When you learn of problems, broadcast what you’ve
Tactics which succeed in aiming at the heart have five general uncovered the length and breadth of your organization – don’t
characteristics: try and sweep problems under the carpet. Trust every single
1. They are thoughtfully created human experiences rather individual in your organization to contribute to the solutions
than a collection of facts and figures. which are needed. Don’t assume only senior managers can
2. They appeal to all the senses. solve problems.
3. They are credible because they are linked to action and not n Redecorate – put pictures of your customers on your walls
just more talk. and change them each week if possible. Make your workplace
incredibly informative and keep things fresh by changing your
4. They are felt rather than explicitly explainable. visuals on a regular basis.
5. They lead us to raise our sights and to emotionally embrace
new goals outside the status quo.
A Sense of Urgency - Page 5

n Send your own people out – have your employees go out and It’s an interesting fact that in most organizations, urgency begets
see what’s happening and then report back. Have them find urgency. If other people see you acting with a sense of urgency,
out what your customers like, what they hate and what needs they will feel motivated to do the same. To become more visibly
to change. Create a forum where these customer stories can urgent:
be shared with everyone else. n Become an expert at purging and delegating – get all those
n Bring other people in – external experts, customers, low-priority items and distracting projects off your
academics, suppliers, consultants, keynote speakers, etc. appointment diary. Let other people do what they were hired
Create an atmosphere where everyone craves information to do without any hand holding from you.
and is trying to learn. That can be incredibly helpful. n Move with deliberate speed on everything you do – use the
n Bring in relevant data and present it in an eye-catching time you free up to return calls promptly and get back to
manner – aggregate the data in ways that are clear, visually people. Never end a meeting without clarifying who will do
appealing and easy to absorb. Make sure your data is: what and when. Write down these understandings and follow
• Deep enough to be useful and accurate. through so people become confident you’re genuinely in the
• Packaged so it can be read in 10 minutes at most. game.
• Surprising and/or dramatic. n When you speak with people, inject some passion – talk about
• Interesting and useful at all levels of your organization. the need to move forward and adapt to the marketplace all the
By all means use good judgement so you don’t end up creating a time. Stress this is the only way to stay ahead of competitors.
false sense of urgency this way. Remember you’re trying to build Talk about stories that illustrate what you’re suggesting. Be
a gut-level determination to move and win right now rather than infective and spark a sense of urgency in others.
generating anger, frustration and anxiety. n Match what you say and what you do – don’t just talk about the
world outside, live it. Uncover some exciting new
Tactic 2 Act urgently today and every day opportunities first-hand. Follow through on whatever you say
and make good things happen.
n Be highly visible – let others see your urgency as this will
A sense of urgency always flows from the top of the organization
encourage them to act the same way. Ask a trusted colleague
down. The boss has to model urgency constantly before anyone
to look at what you’re doing and give you some feedback
else will take any notice or feel any sense of urgency themselves.
whether you are encouraging or discouraging a sense of
This is a case where what the boss does is far more important
urgency. Be a shining example of how you want others to act.
than what he or she merely says.
The two things which dissipate a sense of urgency are obvious “All of us send messages constantly. What we say is obviously
and well-known: important. How, when, and where we speak can be even more
revealing. People watch how quickly we move on various issues.
Clutter They notice tone of voice, facial and body movements. They
Sense of Urgency notice details, if only unconsciously, like whether we start
Enemies Fatigue meetings on time. The implications for creating a sense of
urgency, or not, follow directly”.
– John Kotter
n Clutter undermines a sense of urgency. If you’re too busy
doing low-value items, you will have no time to move fast. You “Behaving urgently to help create great twenty-first-century
won’t have any agility because your day will already be so full organizations demands patience, too, because great
of meetings there is no time to get anything done from one accomplishments – not just the activity associated with false
meeting to the next. If you cull out low-priority items, you’ll urgency – can require years. The right attitude might be called
create time for doing the more important stuff. And remember, ‘urgent patience’. That might sound like a self-contradictory
if you delegate and purge, that will automatically give term. It’s not. It means acting each day with a sense of urgency
everyone else permission to do the same themselves. Also but having a realistic view of time. It means recognizing that five
watch out that other people who report to you are not in the years may be needed to attain important and ambitious goals,
habit of delegating their problems up to you and thereby and yet coming to work each day committed to finding every
crowding your schedule excessively. opportunity to make progress towards those goals. ‘Urgent
n Fatigue similarly undermines a sense of urgency. If you’re dog patience’ captures in two words a feeling and set of actions that
tired all the time, you won’t feel like engaging in the impromptu are never seen with a false sense of urgency”.
interactions which generally push things forward better than – John Kotter
any formal meeting ever does. If you’re jaded, you won’t be “Once you understand the basic idea of how people act to
keen to explore the marketplace environment looking for new increase a sense of urgency in others, it’s relatively easy to see
clues and hints. Instead, you’ll merely go through the actions, how the method can be applied in any situation. The tactic is
sit in meeting after meeting and so forth. Under these simple. Look at all you do. Ask a trusted aide or colleague to look
conditions, it’s easy to end up with a words-deeds mismatch – at all you do. Does your behavior make others feel a true sense of
where everyone in the organization takes what you say with a urgency around key issues? Are your actions modeling what you
grain of salt because they know you never follow through on need from others. Do your words match your deeds? The odds
what you’re suggesting. Instead, next week will be another are high that you have not been taught to behave the way you
repeat of the same old thing. now need to behave. Why can’t you learn? Why not start today?”
– John Kotter
A Sense of Urgency - Page 6

4. The crisis when it does arrive may actually end up being

3 much more severe than anticipated – instead of merely
Tactic Look for opportunity in every crisis
shaking things up in a useful way, the crisis may put you out
of business altogether.
How do you view a crisis?
The bottom line is you shouldn’t be naive. A crisis certainly can
and should be used as an opportunity to move forward but
A terrible event that should be underestimate the impact of a crisis at your own risk. To harness
managed carefully and a crisis to create a true sense of urgency:
avoided at all costs n Keep a positive outlook – look for potential opportunities
Crisis which may be well disguised as dreadful problems.
An opportunity to “burn” the n Don’t assume a crisis will automatically reduce complacency
existing platform and move to – but keep your eye on the ball and make sure everyone is
something better aware of what’s going down.
n Make your crisis visible, unambiguous and significant – so
Neither one of these perspectives is completely correct in and of everyone knows it can’t be solved by business-as-usual.
itself. Both perspectives have some merit. Over time, it isn’t Never minimize the bad news which comes.
unusual for an organization’s control systems to get n Be proactive – get everyone involved in developing action
progressively more heavy handed with the result they eventually plans and then implementing what needs to be done.
kill the entrepreneurial spark and make change difficult. From n Remember you have to appeal to the hearts as well as the
that perspective, a periodic crisis might not be a bad idea minds of your people – so don’t merely look at the situation
because it’s a chance to clean house to some degree. analytically. Inject some passion, conviction, optimism and
If you’re not careful, though, a crisis can generate only a false determination into your plans.
sense of urgency – a flurry of activity accompanied by anxiety n Bring the outside in when urgency levels are low – get busy
and anger. That’s not really all that helpful. Ideally, what you want trying to solve your problems every day.
a crisis to do is to generate a genuine sense of urgency. You
n Take care if you are considering creating your own crisis –
want the message to go out: “We have to act, and act quickly.
make sure it doesn’t get out of control and end up putting you
Blaming others is counterproductive and will get us nowhere. If
out of business altogether. People hate being manipulated so
we’re smart, we can use this crisis to position ourselves to be
don’t do it lightly.
even stronger in the future. You can guarantee there will be even
more turbulence in the markets in the future.” n Enlist allies – get senior managers and others on your side
who see how a crisis can be used as a growth opportunity. Get
In fact the advantages of a periodic crisis are actually so
someone with a bit of sway to take the lead.
attractive some thought must be given to whether or not it would
be helpful to create a crisis yourself now and then. Doing this n Be prudent and smart.
would allow you to develop a new strategy and get it into action
“Urgency will, in all probability, become more relevant in the
with immediate effect rather than waiting until you are forced to
foreseeable future because of the changes swirling around us.
act. If you do this with blind enthusiasm, a stage-managed crisis
Not only is the world hitting us with new opportunities and
would not be helpful but if this is approached in a judicious way, a
hazards, but it is doing so in many arenas at an accelerating rate.
manufactured crisis may end up being exceptionally helpful.
Intensity of competition, technological breakthroughs,
There are four potential problems that can arise when you decide continuing globalization, and the increasing need for innovation
to use a crisis to reduce complacency and increase urgency: all feed this rate acceleration. The specifics will vary from
1. You cannot automatically assume people will feel the need to industry to industry, across different levels of government, and in
act differently when the crisis comes along – because some different countries. But the implications are always the same.
will still revert to anger, fear and confusion regardless. Those who feel content with the status quo – feel being the key
Sometimes a crisis persuades people to make fewer word, not what they necessarily say – put themselves in a more
decisions rather than better decisions. Advance planning and more dangerous position. The anxious and angry focus on
and action plans are needed to make sure people get the wrong issues, often waste time in a flurry of unneeded
mobilized by a crisis rather than paralyzed. activities, all with the same consequence – a growing
2. Sometimes, there will be an angry backlash to a vulnerability. Those with the compulsive drive to move, and win,
manufactured crisis – people will feel manipulated rather now – feelings associated with a true sense of urgency – position
than energized. You might inadvertently make matters worse themselves to achieve more than seems logical or reasonable
and generate only anger rather than a steely determination to for themselves, their employers, and the world in which we all
move forward and win. Everyone else might spend so much live”.
time looking for someone else to blame they never get – John Kotter
around to doing the good stuff that’s required. “Speed will only increase. A sense of urgency will only become
3. If you passively sit and wait, a crisis might never come – or at more essential. Do we have a strong sense of urgency to deal
the very least the marketplace might evolve much slower with issues? Action is the test. Never forget, furious activity and
than you would hope. The crisis situation which would jolt running and meeting and slick presentation are not a sign of true
everyone out of their normal complacency might not arrive as urgency. Alertness, movement, and leadership, now – and from
scheduled for all kinds of different reasons and rationales. many people, not a few – are the signs of true urgency”.
– John Kotter
A Sense of Urgency - Page 7

In reality, there are only three effective approaches for dealing

Tactic 4 Deal effectively with the naysayers with naysayers:
1. Actively distract your naysayers – give them a special
assignment in some foreign office, pair them up with
Naysayers in any organization can stop attempts to create a
someone who needs lots of hands-on management or simply
sense of urgency dead in its tracks. Every organization has
give your naysayers so much work they have no free time to
them. They are always armed with a list of ten reasons why the
create problems for you. Sometimes distraction efforts work
current situation is fine with them. Naysayers will openly insist on
exceptionally well so try this first.
gathering more data before a decision should be made. They
excel at creating feelings of fear and anxiety which can paralyze 2. Push them out of your organization – perhaps confront them
anything and everything. directly and bluntly tell them their difference of opinion is
hurting the enterprise and they have to either change or go.
Naysayers are a different breed from skeptics. Once you win
Give them a deadline, they probably won’t meet it and then
skeptics over and convince them their initial opinions are wrong,
offer an early retirement option which is generous. If they
they often end up becoming the new initiative’s biggest
won’t accept, send them to a job that is an obvious demotion.
champion. Naysayers won’t ever budge and they take delight in
By all means be ethical in what you do but also explain with
derailing any process which is intended to create change.
candor what’s happening and why. Taking an uncomfortable
The other differences between naysayers and skeptics are: step like this now can save lots of hassles later on if you try to
keep them around.
Skeptic Naysayer 3. Expose their behavior in such a way they feel social pressure
to change – identify them in public and let their friends and
Has never seen Past exists only as peers do all the hard yards. Do things in good humor if at all
Past instances where ammunition for possible but bring all the naysayers out of the closet and
experiences issue was dealt with shooting down any expose them to the disinfecting power of the sunlight. Left
effectively need for change now alone, they can systematically undermine all your attempts to
create a genuine sense of urgency so be bold and decisive in
W ants enough outing them. Make them stand up and express their doubts
Not interested in data
information to openly rather than sneaking around in the background. The
Desired but keeps asking for
convince him or her naysayers will feel the heat.
data “proof” as a stall
the new action will Once you sort out your naysayers, don’t forget to get back to
succeed work. Remember, you don’t grow by getting rid of negative
people. You’ll only move forward as a business if everyone gets
Is not open minded
Treats data logically to work creating a twenty-first-century organization. That’s
and only selectively
and is risk averse, where the bulk of your efforts should be focused.
Use uses whatever
therefore likes to
of data pieces of information “Acting urgently is the tactic that creates results quickly. The
collect as much data
suggest no action is other three tactics can all be started immediately, but results will
as possible
required take time. So you make sure that people not only hear the
question about culture in meetings tomorrow, but they see your
Most often is passive genuinely urgent concern that the organization’s culture may be
Most often is highly
Active vs. and tends to have a stopping them from succeeding. You don’t want to be frantic and
active and disruptive
passive “show me” kind of lose credibility or raise questions about hidden agendas. You
behind the scenes
attitude simply let others see some newfound energy within you on the
issue of culture, a seeming belief that they must deal with the
Annoying because Dangerous because question, and soon”.
skeptics can slow naysayers are – John Kotter
Bottom line things down but can always working to
be helpful in the long keep the status quo “These tactics are part of what virtually all great leaders do, but
run whatever it takes using them does not require the genes, charisma, or astonishing
skills of a great leader. The use of some tactics may require a
powerful position in an organization, but many can be employed
When you identify a naysayer: by people at any level in an enterprise. All need to be used much.
n Don’t bother trying to co-opt them to your team – because it Much more often. And they can be”.
can’t be done. All you’ll end up doing is wasting your valuable – John Kotter
time. Regardless of what the facts say or what everyone else
thinks, naysayers will find a way to derail any new initiatives. “Urgency is becoming increasingly important because change is
shifting from episodic to continuous. With episodic change, the
n Don’t try and isolate them and ignore them either – they can challenge of creating a sufficient sense of urgency comes in
create too much mischief behind the scenes for this to work. occasional spurts. With continuous change, creating and
They will find those who have a grudge, zero in on anyone who sustaining a sufficient sense of urgency are always a necessity.
is anxious, locate your weak points and expose them. You These two different kinds of change will continue to challenge us
eventually end up managing the damage caused by your but in a world where the rate of change appears to be going up
naysayers rather than devoting your energy to running your and up, we are experiencing a more global shift from episodic to
business. continuous”.
– John Kotter
A Sense of Urgency - Page 8

So what can be done about this? There are four things you can
A Sense of do to retain a sense of urgency over the long haul:
4 Sustaining a sense of urgency
1. Be aware of the cycle – and anticipate in advance what you
will need to do when urgency levels drop. If you talk about this
Whenever you have a short-term success, everyone relaxes a
and create lots of awareness, everyone can contribute their
little. It becomes harder to keep your urgency levels high. To
best thinking and ideas.
offset that, anticipate this is going to happen and prepare. Work
to embed a keen sense of urgency into the fabric of your 2. Plan a solution – don’t sit back and assume there’s nothing
organization’s culture and DNA. Create a culture where urgency you can do. Find ways to push what’s working even harder
is the norm and not the exception. and become highly proactive. Be in the driver’s seat rather
than feeling like you’re just a passenger on a runaway train.
3. Use the right tools –
Increase Embed in 1 Find ways to bring the outside in
A Sense of 2 Act urgently today and every day
A Sense of
Short-term Urgency
3 Look for opportunity in every crisis
Decrease wins
4 Deal effectively with the naysayers

“An organization that can sustain a high sense of urgency over n Bring real live customers to your in-house meetings and
time has the potential to become a high-performance machine, discuss their needs in fine detail. Look for other
where results go from good to great and beyond. Financial marketplace information which will open eyes.
returns to investors grow past anyone’s expectations. Innovation
flourishes, leading to new products and services that customers n Behave with true urgency yourself. Visibly show that
could not have imagined. The sense of pride and excitement, urgency is an absolute must-have.
and the economic rewards flowing to employees, grows and n Consider creating some kind of new crisis yourself.
grows still more. But sustaining urgency over time requires that it Release a new product which has been developed, even if
not only be created, and created well, but that it be re-created you know it’s likely to fail. Let people see for themselves
again and again”. not everything your firm touches turns to gold.
– John Kotter n Face up to any naysayers which remain and get them
sorted out.
Urgency won’t remain high without a conscious ongoing effort to
sustain it. Simply put, there is a cycle which repeats over and 4. Work to embed a true sense of urgency into your corporate
over: culture and DNA – so everyone will value the capacity to grab
new opportunities, avoid new hazards and continually find
Something comes along which new and better ways to win. Building a culture is a matter of
creates a true sense of urgency creating the behaviors you want and making them the way
your organization does things. Use all the tools at your
Everyone gets jolted out of disposal to do this:
complacency and starts responding • Your promotion choices.
• Your compensation scheme.
The organization moves forward and • How you organize into workgroups.
has some short-term successes
In this case, patience is required. Building a culture requires
a long-term view. It can’t be rushed. New cultures can be
Everyone relaxes and assumes the exceptionally fragile so allow time for desired behaviors to
right things are happening sink in. Keep at it and you’ll reap the rewards.

Even in organizations which value urgency highly, natural forces “Today, I don’t think many organizations anywhere have cultures
tend to push towards stability and contentment. These natural that truly reflect a sense of urgency. This will change. Some
forces peak whenever people have worked hard and have been people will find that to prosper and maintain that prosperity in a
rewarded by a big and obvious win. Everyone will just naturally turbulent, fast-moving world, a culture of urgency is a huge
assume the crisis is past, sacrifices are no longer needed and asset. Through time, effort, and perhaps a bit of luck, they will
that all the mistakes of the past have now been neutralized and create that culture. And it will provide immense benefits to many
therefore everyone can relax. It’s awe inspiring how rapidly an people”.
organization can lapse back into complacency whenever an – John Kotter
immediate challenge passes.

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