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To Create Healthy Urgency, Focus on a Big Opportunity

Geplaatst op feb 22, 2014 in News

There are two basic kinds of energy in organizations. One, triggered by a big opportunity, can create momentum in the right direction and sustain it over time. The other, based on fear or anxiety, might overcome complacency for a time, but it does not build any momentum or maintain it. Instead it can create a panic, with all the obvious negative consequences — stressing people out and eventually draining an organization of the very energy leaders wanted to generate.

We’ve all seen both kinds of energy: opportunity-driven urgency versus anxiety-driven activity. The weight of all my work and experience point overwhelmingly to the fact that in order to create change of real significance, to execute any new and different strategy, you need a sense of true urgency among as many people as possible. I have found that with less than 50% of managers and employees feeling that urgency, you’re very vulnerable to failure.

I’ve also found that people often mistake anxiety-driven activity for a true sense of urgency. But the two are vastly different.

When a person has a true sense of urgency, sparked by a significant opportunity, they are moved by that thought and feeling literally every day. In addition to doing their daily jobs, they proactively look for where they might be able to take action that moves them toward the opportunity. In a faster and faster moving world, this dynamic is invaluable.

In contrast, when a person is motivated by anxiety-driven false urgency, they may be exceptionally active — conducting many meetings, generating reports and PowerPoints, and burning up lots of hours. But that is activity, not productivity, and it also tends to be activity that is self-protective not organizationally important. It is basically running in circles with great energy.

Moreover, because of the way perception and information get filtered in our management-driven hierarchies, it can be very difficult to distinguish false from true urgency. Both look very different from complacency. Both display movement, activity, and initiative. A competent and well-meaning executive may see a big opportunity and begin to act on it, assuming that others also see it and will follow accordingly. But because of the tiered and siloed system he or she operates in, the belief that all is well and that needed momentum rather than anxiety or panic is building, may be completely untrue. And when truth becomes known, the damage is usually already done.

What to do? My colleagues and I at Kotter International have found again and again that a sense of urgency around a big opportunity can create powerful and sustainable action. The opportunity must be real and clear, of course. And it must be described and communicated about in ways that people can relate to and that draws on people’s feelings, not just their intellects. Remember: hearts and minds. Without this kind of positive energy at the core, no significant change effort can succeed.

Here are a couple of related pieces of advice:

  • Never assume that the people you’re leading or working with see what you see, even if a problem or opportunity seems obvious, blazing, impossible to miss. People’s view of the world is limited by silo walls and the ceilings and floors of their level in the hierarchy. A few emails or town hall meetings will not change this.
  • Never forget that so-called burning platforms can create more problems than solutions. Think of a crowded movie theater. Before yelling “fire!” consider the risk of people being trampled to death trying to exit the theater, or consider that even if they do make it out alive they’ll probably run frantically in ten different directions before collapsing, exhausted. No organization needs that kind of negative energy.
  • Related to the second point, keep in mind what the psychologists have pretty much proven: when it comes to sustained effort at a high level, positive feelings are infinitely more successful than negative. Fear and anxiety produce adrenaline which keeps people going for a limited time before leading quickly to burnout.

For those who think their businesses have no opportunity that can create true urgency, all I can say is that I have yet to find a situation where one does not in fact exist. Put a group of smart managers or executives in a room, facilitate the right kind of discussion for a day, and they will come up with a clear and emotionally compelling opportunity statement every time. I’ve seen it, and I’ve seen the power that can be generated when you get a group of excited employees finding creative ways to use that idea to ignite passion in their colleagues, and make change happen.

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