Whenever I meet CEOs, they invariably tell me that they wish their people had more "fire in the belly" or more of a sense of urgency. What are they talking about? Their organizations go about saving someone's life in such a slow methodical fashion, that no life would ever be saved. It's as though a fire truck arrived at a fire and never unrolled any hoses or attached them to any fire hydrants. Instead, they are checking the equipment before getting started.
I have seen this in my own organizations. Hire a new marketing person, and you can be sure that not much more will be accomplished in the first six months than to have the company stationery, business cards, and promotional material redesigned.
What the leaders often don't realize is that their behavior facilitates this "business as usual" slow-motion sleep walk. If you want to get beyond that frustration into effectiveness, this book can help you.
Professor John Kotter knows all this. In his excellent books on change management such as Leading Change and The Heart of Change, he documented that change requires these characteristics be present:
1. A sense of urgency
2. An effective guiding team
3. Appropriate visions and strategies
4. Communications that cause the right messages to be understood by all
5. Allowing people to make necessary changes
6. Making regular progress that inspires people
7. Keeping at making useful changes
8. Not letting the helpful changes unravel
As you can see, it all starts with a sense of urgency. In this book, Professor Kotter gives us his most in-depth look at how a leader can instill and take advantage of a sense of urgency to overcome complacency and bad habits.
He proposes that leaders engage a strategy of continual action based on sensing changes outside the organization that provide opportunities or present threats while eliminating activities that don't add much value. Such a strategy should be implemented in a way that appeals to your organization both rationally and emotionally.
To implement that strategy he suggests these tactics (see pp. 60-61):
1. Bring the outside in with engaging information so that the outside is acknowledged, understood, and acted on.
2. Demonstrate urgency every day as a leader and expect everyone else to do the same.
3. Find appropriate opportunities to change and improve from crises that threaten the organization.
4. Wall off, neutralize, or eliminate those who oppose or slow down change for no good reason.
The book goes on to provide lists of questions, examples of good and bad behavior, and check lists to help you follow Professor Kotter's advice.
I found a few flaws in the ointment that concerned me about the book that I think you should be aware of:
1. In the book's beginning, there's a lot of attention paid to what is described as a "false sense of urgency." He characterizes people with this attitude as feeling that change must be made but whose actions aren't very helpful (like the new marketing people who spend a lot of effort redesigning the stationery). I don't think that's the only syndrome that you have to deal with. I also see people who have a real sense of urgency, but who don't have the management skills to know how to fix whatever it is that needs to be fixed. I would characterize that as incompetent management. Professor Kotter fails to address what to do about incompetent change management.
2. The sections on the tactics don't contain many examples, and many of the examples are ones that he has shared in earlier books such as The Heart of Change. I would have liked to see more examples and more details about how to pursue these tactics in organizations with different kinds of cultures. As a result, I didn't feel like I gained very much information about the tactics beyond what the description of the tactic provides.
3. Can leadership be defined and parsed like management is? To some extent. I think that Professor Kotter doesn't feel comfortable trying to do so. As a result, the book is a little on the superficial side for a reader who hasn't seen an effective change leader in operation.
4. There are many other tactics for leading successful change that require the use of new business models and those ideas are totally missing from the book.
But I don't know of a better book on the challenges of creating a sense of urgency in leading change. So do read this one and make the best use of it you can.