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Why Your Association Needs a Sense of Urgency

ASSOCIATIONS NOW, February 2009, Feature

By: Kristin Clarke, CAE

What does it take for an organization to change? Change management expert John Kotter says the secret is a sense of urgency-true urgency, which is not driven by fear, anxiety, and panic. Kotter explains how your organization can get true urgency and experience change that matters-and lasts.
Summary: Your organization needs to get moving. How to achieve the right sense of urgency—fast. (Titled "Wake Up!" in the print edition.)
If the book A Sense of Urgency had not been written by John Kotter, the world's acknowledged change management guru, I may simply have added it to the pile by my desk designated "stuff to read when I have time." Frankly, "urgency" as a story topic didn't seem, well, pressing.

After all, don't we see urgency in the workplace all the time, morning to night? Isn't it obvious—especially with the accelerated rate of change and the generally rotten economy—that practically every association and nonprofit professional around is overwhelmed with "urgent business?"

Or was Kotter, a longtime Harvard professor, simply going to lecture us with predictable advice? You know: Calm down; don't panic; work smarter, not longer.

A workplace culture infected with false urgency is easy to spot—full of excessive meetings and "PowerPointing."

No, no, and no. Instead, Kotter chides leaders severely and surprisingly in his opening sentences: "We are much too complacent," he writes. "And we don't even know it."

He explains more to me during an interview: "Real urgency, which is not out there very much, unfortunately, is a perspective that there are big opportunities and problems out there. More importantly, it's an emotion. It's a gut-level determination to get up every day, every single day, and to do something, no matter how small, to push along your capacity to grab the big opportunities or to avoid the big hazards."

Kotter and his research colleagues have found plentiful examples of two opposites to urgency: "false urgency" and complacency.

False urgency is driven by fear, anxiety, and panic. A workplace culture infected with false urgency is easy to spot—full of excessive meetings and "PowerPointing." Kotter warns that false urgency is "in some ways more destructive than what we usually think of as the opposite of urgency, which is complacency."

Unlike the crazed activity of a workplace full of false urgency, research has found that complacency "is often invisible to the people involved," Kotter says. Few executives take conscious measure of urgency-complacency levels in their organizations: Everyone is busy around them. Money is coming in the door. The organization may be top in its field. Isn't that proof enough of the right level of urgency?

Actually, success makes an organization most vulnerable to complacency, Kotter warns. "Complacency is an attitude that is basically, ‘What I'm doing is fine,'" he says. "You can be complacent and say, ‘There are global problems around here, but the problems are over there.' If you have enough people acting like that, then, of course, nothing happens. …  Everybody or too many people think that things are just fine for themselves, so there is no basis for action.

"It is amazing how much [complacency] you can have, even in a troubled economy, even when organizations are facing all kinds of hazards, from foreign competition to new technologies and the like. … It seems so illogical, but it happens very easily, and it, of course, is deadly."

Identifying Complacency

The Biggest Mistake

Change-management expert John Kotter began to study the issue of urgency more closely when he noticed the frequency of a question raised by business professionals familiar with his work: "What is the single biggest error people make when they try to change?"

In the seminal books Leading Change and The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations, Kotter shared research revealing that 70 percent of organizations that needed or had started major change initiatives either failed, never launched them, or succeeded only partially.

He also found that just 10 percent of the 130 organizations examined "achieved more than would have been thought possible." They did so, Kotter concluded, by using an eight-step strategy grounded in the finding that people don't change in the long term because of data and analyses that alter their thinking. Instead, they change when they are shown a truth that alters their feelings—what Kotter called a "see-feel-change" dynamic. Embedded as one of the eight steps is the need to create a culture of urgency that inspires workers to want to focus their efforts toward new goals and substantive change—today.

After further study, the lack of a "high enough" sense of urgency became Kotter's answer to the error question, and the theme of his latest book A Sense of Urgency, because the level of urgency is the foundation from which all of the other change-management steps sprout—the spark that lights the emotional fire for real change.

"A big reason that a true sense of urgency is rare is that it's not a natural state of affairs," Kotter explains in the book. "It has to be created and re-created."

That takes skill, creativity, and mindfulness on the part of the CEO and top staff. The problem is that most leaders think they are already acting with smart urgency.

"One of the reasons we wrote our new book is to help people who thought that indeed they were living in an environment with plenty of urgency—that was not the issue—when in fact, the central problem they were facing that was making it difficult for them to mobilize … was that they did not have a strong enough sense of urgency," Kotter says.

To most professionals, "urgent" is a close cousin of "crisis," a barrier to the acceptance of urgency as a learned tool and leadership skill. Kotter acknowledges the difficulty: "There's a lot of confusion about crisis. There's this belief that without a ‘burning platform'—that's the word I hear most—you can never make change happen. That turns out to be wrong."

A "burning platform," in the business sense, is a scenario in which employees are coerced to act (in the original usage, to jump from a high platform soon to be engulfed in flames) because an alternative is, or appears to be, worse (jumping and possibly dying is better than staying and definitely burning to death). "I might see a crisis and just freak out," Kotter says. "Anxiety goes up, and I start running in circles and hiding underneath the coffee table. That's not urgency. That's another kind of dysfunctional form of behavior. So, [burning-platform] crises don't necessarily have to do anything and don't necessarily produce anything that is very useful."

In fact, counterintuitive though it may be, "true urgency doesn't produce dangerous levels of stress, at least partially because it motivates people to relentlessly look for ways to rid themselves of chores that add little value to their organizations but clog their calendars and slow down needed action," Kotter says in his book. "People who are determined to move and win, now, simply do not waste time or add stress by engaging in irrelevant or business-as-usual activities."

Kotter urges leaders to "get out of your office" and look closely to determine whether they have created a workplace driven by true urgency. "Have some clarity around what complacency is and what it looks like, what urgency is and what it looks like, what false urgency is and what it looks like, and then go out and look," he continues. "Don't just listen to what people say; look at what they actually do. Go out and find people you trust and whom you've known for years who see other parts of the organization that you don't on a regular basis, and ask them in confidence what they see" and whether there is enough of a "floor from which you can launch major [change] initiatives."

Often, when leaders do find either a culture of complacency or false urgency, they must dramatically "reposition things internally, because the priorities aren't right," Kotter says. "In a complacent world, for instance, the priorities will be obviously ‘somewhat wrong' to ‘very wrong.' In a world filled with false urgency, the priorities are ‘completely wrong.'"

Four Tactics for Creating Positive Urgency

Many researchers agree with Kotter that change has moved from "episodic" to "continual." With true urgency needed as the foundation for change, leaders might tackle their complacency and false urgency problems with any or all of the following four tactics:

"There are crises where the only thing you can do is pray that you can get out of them."—John Kotter

Invite the outside in. Kotter voices frustration with leaders who consistently believe their organization is the exception in terms of operating with true urgency.

"The disconnect that can happen between the reality out there and the reality as perceived inside organizations can be absolutely astonishing at times," Kotter says with clear exasperation. "Nothing against the wonderful people in Detroit, but the disconnect between what so many people inside those auto companies believed and saw, say, 30 years ago and the reality of the way the auto industry was evolving was not a little bit—it was huge! That led to a degree of complacency that is now creeping up 30 years later into a full-blown crisis of the magnitude that I don't think anybody quite comprehends.

"That happens with success, and one of the ways you deal with that is to reconnect what people see inside with the outside, because there's no such thing these days as an easy, placid, no-opportunity, no-hazard outside. There's so much going on that offers us opportunities or is shooting bullets at us that if you can get the inside of organizations to see that, it's impossible for people to be complacent. And if you can get them to see that in the right way, it doesn't turn into the false urgency that is just an energy drain."

In A Sense of Urgency, Kotter identifies numerous ways that organizations can internalize external perspectives and knowledge. They include everything from attending trade and professional association events to hiring consultants to exposing employees to overseas opportunities that provide a broader sense of the world and build excitement and urgency within themselves. All of that enthusiasm, information, and heightened urgency washes back to the organization, if proper knowledge-sharing systems are in place.

Behave with daily urgency. Kotter often coaches leaders to "never act content, anxious, or angry" and to "demonstrate your own sense of urgency" in all of their behavior and communications.

"The challenge is psychological," Kotter states. "The reality is, what do we control the most? I control my behavior; I don't control yours. The easiest [tactic] is for me to get some clarity in my own mind in terms of what acting with urgency is, then just go out and do it. What makes [urgent behavior] the hardest for some people is that they have learned from their own experience, and they have kind of a psychological construct in their heads that they don't have much control over their behavior, that they're wedged in by structures, systems, bosses, expectations, [and so on]. …

"It's sad when you see it happen. Twenty-two-year-olds aren't like that by and large, but you can find 52-year-olds like that, because that's the way they've internalized the experience they've had over 30 years."

He reiterates that behaving with true urgency, which does require mindful, purposeful actions in both a personal and organizational sense, "is not something that wears you down. It's the false urgency that is the energy-dragging thing that kills people off over time. Real urgency produces success, which gives energy back. People love to win, so it can be sustained over time. The reason [true urgency] drops is that if you win enough, it's easy to fall into the habit [of] popping the champagne and spending a little bit too much time partying, and in the process complacency then starts to creep back in."

However, leaders can prevent that drop off in urgency. "The clearer something is in your head that it needs to be sustained, the higher probability you'll pay attention to it, and therefore, the higher probability that if you see a problem there, you'll act on it, and something useful will happen."

Use crises to reveal opportunities. Leaders have heard this before, but Kotter's twist is to use crises as a chance for leaders to ask themselves not only if opportunities exist, but also if opportunities exist specifically to "bring up the urgency" levels in the workplace.

"The new take [on this advice] is not that (a) you have to have a big crisis to change—that's not true—or (b) that crisis is always good—that's not true, either." Kotter quickly adds, "It's (c)—crises can be helpful, depending on how you handle them. The real key is that anytime … you have some crisis, at least ask yourself the question, ‘Is there a way that we can use this to reduce complacency and get the urgency we need to win?'"

Sometimes there isn't. "There are crises where the only thing you can do is pray that you can get out of them," Kotter acknowledges.

Face up to your no-nos. Of all of the many internal barriers to long-term successful change in an organization, the largest is the group of colleagues Kotter calls "no-nos"—naysayers who resist and deflect change. "There is a lot of frustration around them," he says, adding that many no-nos are people of great influence. This also makes them "the most destructive, especially in an age of turbulence and increasing rates of change. … But you can be at the bottom of the organization and have one no-no on your work team who just makes life awful if you're trying to do some new things that need to be done to make your work team successful."

Still, people don't like to acknowledge the high success rate of no-nos in squashing substantive change efforts. Indeed, Kotter admits with a laugh that he lists this tactic last because "I didn't want to scare people." Fear and discomfort, though, don't get any leader off the hook.

"If people don't deal with their no-nos—and those are creatures who aren't skeptics; they are just urgency killers, change killers—you're just dragging an anchor that sooner or later is going to wear you down," Kotter says. "Regarding the other three tactics, I think it's more a matter of ‘do as much as you can on as many as you can as often as you can and as less expensively and easily as you can.'"

The important thing is to actually do them and not assume that your ever-busy association or nonprofit is indeed conducting "urgent business." Continued ignorance or denial about the vital role of urgency in long-term change initiatives is likely to result only in a weary, frustrated staff, an inadequately served membership or customer base, or change only of the sort that leads to organizational demise.

"Increasingly, a DNA-built-in capability to keep a relatively high sense of urgency is going to be more and more important for organizations of all types to be able to prosper," Kotter says. With the rising rate of change, an organizational "environment of hyper-alertness" to external happenings and knowledge, and a "rampant" determination to deal with it all, true urgency "becomes a bigger and bigger asset. And it doesn't exist [in most organizations], because what we face now is what we needed to face five years ago, 10 years ago, or 15 years ago."

Formerly deputy editor of Associations Now, Kristin Clarke, CAE, is now a writer and researcher for ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership's Knowledge Initiatives, particularly the Social Responsibility Initiative. Email:

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