The enemy of change is complacency

A Sense of Urgency by John P Kotter pinpoints the key to managing change in businesses.

by Stefan Stern
Last Updated: 27 Nov 2015

John P Kotter, emeritus professor at Harvard Business School, is perhaps the world's no 1 guru on managing change. His most famous book is probably Leading Change (1996), which introduced his eight-step methodology for running change programmes.

But this slimmer volume makes it into the classic category, because it lifts out the single most important element of his analysis. Without a sense of urgency all attempts at change are doomed.

Kotter says that change, once more of an episodic phenomenon, has now become a continuous one. 'With continuous change, creating and sustaining a sufficient sense of urgency are always a necessity,' he writes. 

The enemy of urgency is complacency. It is a slippery foe because it is both a thought and a feeling. Facts are not enough to shift it. ‘It is possible to see problems and yet be astonishingly complacent because you do not feel that the problems require changes in your own actions,’ Kotter writes.

But urgency does not mean panic or hyperactivity. Kotter suggests that leaders need to display what he calls 'urgent patience': persistence and unrelenting purposefulness, not an unthinking call for immediate action. Transmit a sense of (intelligent) urgency and things will change for the better.

A Sense of Urgency by John P Kotter is published by Harvard Business Press, 2008

Stefan Stern is visiting professor at Cass Business School. Follow him on Twitter: @stefanstern

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