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Saturday, August 16, 2008

A Sense of Urgency by John Kotter (a review)

John Kotter, professor emeritus of the Harvard Business School, has just written his newest book, A Sense of Urgency. I was contacted by the Harvard Business Press to review an advance copy, and I did so to my advantage. It’s an excellent explication of the first tenet of Kotter’s now well known 8-step change theory (From his book Leading Change):

  1. Establish a sense of urgency.
  2. Create a guiding coalition.
  3. Develop a vision and a strategy.
  4. Communicate the change vision.
  5. Empower employees for broad-based action.
  6. Generate short-term wins.
  7. Consolidate gains and produce more change.
  8. Anchor new approaches in the culture.

Kotter believes that urgency is critical to this whole process; simply put, no urgency—no change.

Kotter drills down into the weeds on establishing a sense of urgency and gives the reader some clear reasons for improving companies:

Successful companies tend to be complacent and do little; companies that raise a false sense of urgency run around like chickens with their heads cut off—frazzled; only those companies working off a true sense of urgency tend to produce change that matters. Kotter further explains that complacent and under-fire companies are too focused on the internal (strengths and weaknesses) and very little on the external threats and opportunities. If you’ll recall the well-known strategic planning mantra S.W.O.T (Strengths, Weakness, Opportunity and Threats), Kotter’s urgency theory makes a lot of sense. Again, the progressive and productive companies look not just inward but especially outward—at how opportunity and threats must be faced squarely.

To increase this sense of urgency, the author provides a simple but effective strategy: "Create action that is exceptionally alert, externally oriented, relentlessly aimed at winning, making some progress each and every day and constantly purging low value-added activities--all by always focusing on the heart and not just the mind."

You’ll need to read the book for the valuable detail that Kotter provides. The following is a cursory overview:

  1. Bring the outside in (connect to the customer and the world outside the corporate walls).
  2. Behave urgently every day (make urgency—not anxiety or anger—part of the culture focused on external opportunities and threats).
  3. Find opportunity in crisis (be careful but look for opportunity in the midst of any crisis).
  4. Deal with the NoNos who block change (neutralize and remove those urgency-killers, who will keep the group in a deadly complacent static state in an ever-changing world. Healthy skeptics are not a threat, but the NoNos are).

Kotter has hit the nail squarely in this easy-to-read book. Having seen all sorts of companies up close, I think Kotter has described a practical method for getting people to be productive—by creating a real sense of urgency.

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