Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Why don't businesses change and adapt? No "Sense of Urgency"

John Kotter is the change guru. His article "Leading Change" from Harvard Business Review is a classic I've recommended to a number of people. His newest book, "A Sense of Urgency," focuses on the one area where companies most often fail the change test--establishing an organization-wide priority to, using Kotter's words, "move, and win, now."

It's a terrifically-written book, with lots of stories of organizations succeeding at or failing the urgency test. Kotter points out (as I've experienced) that many organizations in trouble foster a sense of "false urgency"--an inwardly-focused, fearful level of intense activity (wall-to-wall meetings; sound familiar?) that harms the organization, perhaps as much, or more than, old-fashioned complacency.

By contrast, "true urgency" engages employees' hearts; focuses outwardly on customers, competitors and the industry environment; and is practiced by everyone in the organization, most especially the leaders. It also requires understanding the true priorities of the company and purging activities that are not connected with those priorities, thereby opening up time for reflection, experimentation, and immersion in the world outside the company walls.

Here's my favorite snippet from "A Sense of Urgency":

We call this a thought experiment. Imagine, if you will, an organization where people up and down the hierarchy, and systems throughout the organization, help pull the outside in through
  • Sending out people
  • Bringing in people
  • Bringing in relevant data in an eye-catching manner
  • Listening to customer-interface employees
  • Creating video about the outside
  • Widely sharing what is learned instead of shielding others from possibly troubling news
  • Changing the visuals
Nearly everyone in an organization can use these tactics to create more urgency among peers or their bosses. Imagine what would happen to complacency if many people at many levels did so. (p.100)

I can't think of a better book for today's business environment, when so many companies are struggling to reinvent themselves, while companies clearly in deep trouble continue to be surprised by the outside reality (example). " A Sense of Urgency" is a must-read.

Related post:
Time to start listening to front-line employees