Books special: A Sense of Urgency

MT spoke exclusively to John Kotter, emeritus professor of leadership at HBS, on his new book.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Professor Kotter is known as a master of change - his previous book Leading Change, published in 1996, outlined an eight-step process for implementing successful transformations. In the newly published A Sense of Urgency, Professor Kotter shines the spotlight on the crucial first step in his framework: creating a sense of urgency by getting people to actually see and feel the need for change.

‘We're moving from a time of episodic change to continuous change in organisations,' he explains. ‘Episodic change is when things are stable and then you are thrown a big IT system and everything is chaotic for a few years, then it settles down again. Continuous change is when you keep getting these things thrown at you all the time. So, having a sense of urgency built into the organisation becomes more and more not just something to do with being part of a change process, but a more central organisational capability that might help you differentiate you from others'

So, why does he think so much organisational change is doomed to failure? ‘No change can get off to a good start unless you can take the false urgency - this kind of anxiety-driven, running around in circles, activity - or the complacency out of the system. That, and getting enough people who are absolutely determined deep in their hearts to start get up every day and find the real problems and opportunities within the organisation and taking some action, even if it's teeny. Until you get enough people doing that you do not have a strong enough foundation to be able to launch an effort that has any chance of succeeding. More often than not, if people don't do that, any change is doomed from the beginning.'

He argues too that his book has a particular resonance during the current downturn: ‘We should always look at difficult situations not just as difficult situations but as an opportunity to launch some changes that will make you stronger in the future. Just firing a few people isn't going to make you stronger. Nobody has ever shrunk themselves to greatness.'

The most important piece of advice to take away from the book, he argues, is this: ‘The world is dangerously full in an age of change with too much complacency and too much of this wretched, stressed-out, frenetic activity that we associate with false urgency. This is not producing outcomes that are good for the human community, and it will produce worse outcomes in the future. But we can do something about this. It is not an inevitably negative story if we recognise it and know the various methods for correcting it.'

Professor Kotter's book ‘A Sense of Urgency' is published by Harvard Business Press. A review will be published in the October issue of MT.

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Books special: A Sense of Urgency

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