Some times you need help urgently.

Some times you need help urgently!

The first two chapters of John P. Kotter’s Leading Change established why change in organizations fails and the forces that shape successful changes in organizations and ultimately introduces the eight-stage process for creating major change.  Chapter three dives into the model by exploring the first phase.  A sense of urgency provides the source of energy that can drive change.  Without a sense of urgency that is shared by the majority of stakeholders, the level of effort required to deliver change will overwhelm any progress.  Period!

Simply put, change is difficult. In all but the newest organizations the status quo has an enormous amount of inertia.  Organizations have invested time and effort into building planning and control processes that lock in strategies and techniques that have been successful.  Breaking that inertia requires an application of energy to disrupt the process equilibrium most organizations develop.  For an example of inertia and established equilibriums, fill a bath tub with water, open the drain and then cover the drain hole with a plug (or your hand).  An equilibrium quickly forms between the water pushing down and the vacuum of the drain pipe.  If the pull of the vacuum or water pressure increased too much the system would fail and you would have to buy new plumbing. In order to break the seal and let the water out of the tub energy is needed to break the seal of the plug.  A sense of urgency is the energy that can be applied to break the seal and propel the change processes.

Complacency is the force that opposes urgency.  Complacency is a feeling of uncritical self-satisfaction with yourself or your organization’s achievements. Complacency is caused by numerous scenarios and activities including lack of a visible crisis, past success, trappings of success to “happy talk.”  Early in my career I worked for a major women’s garment manufacturer.  The firm was the largest and most successful junior clothing manufacturer.  The year after I joined the firm we achieved our highest sales year. Enter MTV and the ascendancy of boutique mall retailers (this was also the beginning of the significant consolidation of the department store market).  Our market research and sale leaders focused on talking primarily to accounts that were successful in selling our merchandise.  This was akin to having conversations in a fishbowl (closed, self-reinforcing environment). Other signs of behaviors and environmental conditions reinforced the feeling of complacency that kept the organization from generating a sense of urgency.  The first is was slow erosion of sales (no visible immediate crisis) and lots of trappings of success, such as holding sales meetings in luxury resorts even while sales plummeted. Complacency has to be broken for a sense of urgency to take hold.

Bold moves are required to disrupt and confront complacency. For example, a few years ago I was sitting in on a staff meeting of an IT organization that was actively being shopped to outsourcers. It was common knowledge that the “business” felt that the organization was unproductive and cost too much. The first thirty minutes of the meeting was a self-congratulatory presentation on the organization’s past successes.  When I discussed it afterwards with the CIO, his defense of the presentation was that he was trying to generate higher moral.  Side note: the IT organization did not measure productivity or cost per unit, therefore they had little understanding of whether they were efficiently spending the business’ money. Later that year I was told the IT organization had been outsourced and that out of approximately 5k people in the department, only 35 still had jobs.  Focusing on past successes and failing to transparently discuss hard truths allow complacency to throttle a sense of urgency.

Significant changes require significant effort. A sense of urgency which defines the need to change generates the energy needed to apply the effort and resources needed for change. Without a sense of urgency it will be difficult to generate buy-in amongst the management team in an organization.  Establishing a sense of urgency is the first stage of eight-stage process for creating major change.  It is an absolute requirement for a change of any significance, but it is not sufficient to complete the cycle of change.