A sense of urgency

kotter_urgencyJohn Kotter is the organisational change guru. His book Leading Change continues to be one of most influential books on the topic. Many leaders and organisations implement Kotter’s eight step process for managing positive change. His more recent book, A Sense of Urgency, examines the factors that help or hinder change. He digs more deeply into what he believes to be the most significant factor in managing change – creating a sense of urgency.

At the beginning of any effort to make changes of any magnitude, if a sense of urgency is not high enough and complacency is not low enough, everything else becomes so much more difficult.  (ix)

It all starts with a sense of urgency

Complacency is a serious problem. When people are content to maintain the status quo, they fail to see the wonderful opportunities and dangerous threats before them. The best solution to the complacency problem is not to get frantically busy, but to create a true sense of urgency.

Urgency doesn’t mean frenetic activity. It’s not about getting faster or busier. It has to do with recognising things of ‘pressing importance’. It’s about acting on critical issues now, not when it’s convenient.

True urgency doesn’t build up stress levels, because it means sticking by priorities. It requires focus on the main game and not worrying about the trivia and irrelevant tasks that clog up our calendars.

Complacency and false urgency

The first step in creating a true sense of urgency is to deeply understand its opposites: complacency and false urgency.  (p19)

Complacency is very much a feeling and not simply a thought. It’s less about rational analysis and more about unconscious emotion. It’s possible to see problems and yet be complacent because you don’t feel that the problems require changes in your own behaviour.

False urgency is very different from complacency. Complacency leaves things the way they are, whereas false urgency adds more and more activity. While complacency is built on a feeling that everything is okay, false urgency is built on anxiety and anger. This can create activity without productivity. It can also be very destructive.

Increasing true urgency

Business cases tend to use analysis and logic to demonstrate that an issue is important and that a course of action should be taken. They try to reduce complacency by appealing to people’s minds. Yet, when it comes to affecting behaviour, feelings are more influential than thoughts. This is not a recipe for mindless emotional manipulation. The challenge is to fold a rational case directed toward the mind into an experience that is very much aimed at the heart. (p47)

Tactics that aim at the heart, and successfully increase urgency, all seem to have five key characteristics:

  1. They are thoughtfully created human experiences.
  2. Effective experiences work appropriately on all of our senses.
  3. The experiences make change-weary, cynical people believe in a positive future.
  4. The experiences rarely need explanation. The point is clear.
  5. The experiences almost inevitably lead us to raise our sights, to emotionally embrace goals beyond maintaining the status quo.

There are four tactics that get used to increase urgency with heart-head strategies:

Tactic one – bring the outside in

Tactic one is based on the observation that organisations tend to be too internally oriented. There is a disconnect between what insiders see, feel, and think and external opportunities. This reduces an organisation’s sense of urgency.

An inward-focused organisation often misses new opportunities and hazards coming from competitors, customers, and a changing environment. When these opportunities and hazards aren’t seen, the sense of urgency drops and complacency grows.

Organisations need to stay in touch with what’s happening around them. They need to take steps to find this out. When they discover they’re out of touch, this news needs to be shared widely. Sharing information can be a powerful way of increasing urgency. Leaders can increase urgency for change rather than retreating into damage control. Outsiders can be imported into the organisation to bring new perspective that enables people to see things afresh and develop a sense of urgency.

Tactic two – behave with urgency every day

People watch how quickly their leaders move on issues. Tone of voice, body language, and things like whether we start meetings on time, all send a message about urgency. We need to model urgency on a daily basis if we want our organisations to embrace it.

Lots of things hinder a leader’s ability to model urgency. Being too busy with dozens of different and often unrelated activities. Clutter and fatigue undermine true urgency.

We need to eliminate low priority items from our calendars and to do lists. Getting rid of clutter and freeing up space allows us to move faster. It enables us to focus on what’s really important.

Urgency is contagious, but only if it’s visible. Behaving urgently doesn’t mean constantly creating stress for others or getting frustrated when no one else completes every goal tomorrow. It requires ‘urgent patience’, acting every day with a sense of urgency, but having a realistic view of appropriate time frames.

Tactic three – find opportunity in crises

Some people view crises as bad because they can hurt people, disrupt plans, and can cripple organisations and communities. Others see crises as opportunities. They believe the greater danger is complacency, and a crisis may be required in order to confront it.

Turning a crisis to our advantage requires us to be looking for potential opportunities. The big challenge is almost always more a heart problem than a mind problem. We need to act with passion, conviction, optimism, and resolve.

Sometimes a crisis is needed to shake people from their complacency. We might even need to create a crisis. This needs to be done carefully without leading to an angry backlash because people feel manipulated. A crisis, whether natural or created, can be a powerful tool to reduce complacency, but it won’t happen automatically. We need to act wisely.

Tactic four – deal with NoNos

A NoNo is more than a skeptic. He’s always ready with ten reasons why the current situation is fine, why the problems and challenges others see don’t exist, or why you need more data before acting.  (p146)

NoNos are much more dangerous than we might believe, and that’s one of the reasons we make mistakes in dealing with them. People tend to either co-opt them or to isolate and ignore them. Neither strategy is effective. NoNos aren’t open-minded and are usually very intentional about delaying, hindering, or disrupting change. Ignored NoNos can create problems by stirring up trouble with others. They undercut the development of any sense of true urgency for change. A smart NoNo locates weak points in arguments and is expert at creating anxiety and undermining effort to take opportunities and avoid hazards.

There are three effective solutions for dealing with NoNos:

  1. Give them something important or meaningful to do that keeps them occupied but away from a place of influence.
  2. Remove them from the organisation.
  3. Expose their behaviour. Once people identify a person as a ‘NoNo’ their ability to exercise influence becomes extremely limited.

Sustaining urgency

Sustaining urgency over time requires that it not only be created, and created well, but that it be re-created again and again.  (p169)

Natural forces tend to push toward stability and contentment. The basic pattern is simple: urgency leads to success leads to complacency. For this reason, we need to build a culture of urgency, where people value the capacity to grab new opportunities, avoid new hazards, and continually find ways to succeed. We need to work at being constantly alert, focusing externally, moving fast, stopping low-value-added activities that absorb time and effort, and relentlessly pushing for change when it’s needed. Such a culture is rare, but worth seeking to create.

Creating urgent churches

A Sense of Urgency contains an urgent message for many churches. Things can move very slowly in some churches. ‘But we’ve always done it that way’ are too often the words of a dying church. Whether it’s fear of change or attachment to the status quo, many churches remain inert and unable to respond effectively to opportunities or threats.

Leaders need to build a sense of urgency. This shouldn’t be a false urgency that builds stress and over-commitment with everyone running around like headless chooks, achieving nothing of real value. We should seek to rally people to the good opportunities. This requires us to offer a compelling vision for change that captivates people’s hearts.

We also need to awaken people to the dangers of complacency. Too many churches that were once vibrant, energetic, growing, missional congregations, have long since become dormant museums to the glory days. They reminisce about how they used to be as they atrophy and die.

Churches have more reason than other organisations to behave with a healthy sense of urgency. We believe life is short and that people’s lives count. We understand that one day people will stand before God to give an account of their lives. We want people to hear the good news of salvation and to be reconciled to God. It concerns me how slowly we respond to the needs and opportunities around us. We spend too long discussing and often fail to get to doing. Church leaders would do well to read this book and think about how to increase the urgency of our church cultures. It begins with our own attitudes to what we do. Time is a valuable resource. Let’s not waste it.

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