HALL OF FAMETOP 50 REVIEWERon September 16, 2008
Years ago, Steven Covey suggested that many (most?) executives spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough on what is important. In Chapter 1 of this book, John Kotter suggests that, in fact, the problem is that many (most?) workers -- including executives -- do not have "a true sense of urgency [that is a] highly positive and highly focused force [and] the result of people, up and down the hierarchy, who provide the leadership needed to create and re-create this increasingly important asset. These sorts of people use a strategy that aims at the heart as well as the mind. They use four sets of tactics." Kotter devotes the balance of his book to explaining what the strategy and tactics are, why they are essential to the success of individuals as well as to the success of their organization, and how those who read his book can execute the strategy and tactics to achieve the given objectives, whatever they may be.
As I read this book, I was reminded of recent research conducted by the Gallup Organization indicating that 29% of the U.S. workforce is engaged (i.e. loyal, enthusiastic, and productive) whereas 55% is passively disengaged. That is, they are going through the motions, doing only what they must, "mailing it in," coasting, etc. What about the other 16%? They are "actively disengaged" in that they are doing whatever they can to undermine their employer's efforts to succeed. They have a toxic impact on their associates and, in many instances, on customer relations. These are stunning statistics. How to explain them? Reasons vary from one organization to the next. However, most experts agree that no more than 5% of any given workforce consists of "bad apples," troublemakers, chronic complainers, subversives, etc. How to get as many as possible among the other 50% to become positively engaged?
It is important to note that, for many years, Kotter has conducted rigorous and extensive research of his own on employee engagement and has a wide and deep range of hands-on experience with hundreds of major corporations that were either planning change initiatives or had only recently embarked on them. In three of his published works (Leading Change, The Heart of Change with Dan Cohen, and Our Iceberg Is Melting), he explains why more than 70% of change initiatives fail. "The number-one problem [organizations] have is all about creating a sense of urgency - and that's the first step in a series of actions needed to succeed in a changing world...Winners first make sure that a sufficient number of people feel a true sense of urgency to look for an organization's critical opportunities and hazards now." It is not that Kotter disagrees with Covey. On the contrary. If I understand what Kotter shares in this book, one of his key points is that workers must devote most of their time to what is most important...and do so by creating and recreating "a true sense of urgency" at all levels and in all areas.
In this context, I am reminded of a hospital emergency room. Its success requires adequate resources as well as a highly skilled staff with cross-functional capabilities. All of its members share "a true sense of urgency" when responding to all manner of health crises. More often than not, they are treating strangers about whom they know little (if anything) and sometimes must deal with a life-or-death situation. There is no time for complacency. Everyone must be fully engaged. For the ER team to be successful, its members must be both intellectually and emotionally committed to assist those entrusted to their care. There is no place on the team for anyone who is unwilling and/or unable to accept these responsibilities. Kotter's point (and I wholeheartedly agree) is that no team can succeed unless and until each of its members feels as well as understands "a true sense of urgency" and that is as true of executives and those on the shop floor as it is of ERs. "Get that right and you are off to a great start. Get that right and you can produce results that you very much want, and the world very much needs."
The other three tactics are best revealed within Kotter's narrative, in context. Now I wish to shift my attention to some material in Chapter 6 as Kotter discusses two perspectives on the nature of crises. "The first group, by far the larger, sees crises as horrid events, and for obvious reasons." Therefore, every effort is to avoid them or at least to prepare for them with comprehensive plans for crisis management and damage control. "A very different perspective on the nature of crises is described with the metaphor of a `burning platform.' In this view, crises are not necessarily bad and may, under certain conditions, actually be required to succeed in an increasingly changing world." Which perspective is correct? "Neither," Kotter responds, and then he explains various downside risks of a damage control mind-set or when using a crisis to reduce complacency and create. Again, what he recommends is best revealed within the narrative. However, I want to reassure those who read this brief commentary that Kotter fully appreciates the potential value of that contingency planning and crisis management. (He is a world-renowned expert on both.) He also clearly aware of problems that could occur when crying "Wolf!" in the absence of such a threat. In this context, his objective is to help his reader to understand how and why there are times when judicious use of created crisis can be appropriate. That said, "any naiveté about the downside risks can cause disaster" and for that reason, he identifies and briefly discusses four "Big Mistakes" (Pages 136-141) and then suggests that crises can be used to create true urgency if eight principles he recommends are followed. (Please see Pages 142-143.) In a world in which change is the only constant and seems to be occurring at an every-increasing velocity, Kotter notes that "finding opportunities in crises probably reduces your overall risk." It seems to me that in this chapter, Kotter explores a previously neglected dimension of crisis of management, and once again, he indicates still other applications of the eight-step pattern introduced in the aforementioned earlier books, Leading Change, The Heart of Change with Dan Cohen, and Our Iceberg Is Melting.
In Chapter 9, he shares his thoughts about how to sustain a high sense of urgency in an organization. That is indeed a major challenge, especially when thinking in terms of doing so throughout an entire enterprise. Obviously, leadership is needed at all levels and in all areas. "The ultimate solution to the problem of urgency dropping after successes is to create the right culture. This is especially true as we move from a world in which change is most episodic to a world in which change is continuous." Completing that transition is never easy but is far easier in what Kotter characterizes as "the right culture." Although significantly different in most ways, all high-performance companies seem to have a culture in which a majority of those involved take pride in what they achieve but are convinced that there is always room for improvement, that they can always do better. They are never satisfied. They view mistakes, errors, detours, dry wells, blind alleys, etc. as valuable learning opportunities. Their change initiatives to sustain improvement tend to be customer-driven and with, you guessed it, "a true sense of urgency."
Is this also true of your culture? If not, I urge you to read this book first and then each of the other three (Leading Change, The Heart of Change with Dan Cohen, and then Our Iceberg Is Melting) to prepare yourself to attract and engage others in urgently needed change initiatives. If not now, when? If not you, who?
Meanwhile, tick tock, tick tock, tick tock, tick tock....