By EDWARD H. BAKER
From Strategy+Business (www.strategy-business.com)
Most executives would agree that change is no longer a luxury, but rather a necessity -- or perhaps an inevitability that must be managed, not feared. How leaders can help their companies cope with the turmoil of transformation has long been the concern of Harvard Business School Professor John Kotter.
Kotter's new book, "A Sense of Urgency" (Harvard Business School Press, 2008), attempts to deconstruct change by focusing on what he believes to be the first step: driving an organizational culture built on the belief that change is not only desirable but must be pursued relentlessly. This alone can eliminate the risks of complacency, he argues.
In his book, Kotter explores what it takes to maintain an urgent atmosphere in a corporation. First, allowing outside influences in; second, encouraging change consistently, on a daily basis, not just when it appears necessary; third, looking for the opportunities that arise in a crisis, no matter how dire; and fourth, adeptly managing the "no-nos" -- employees who insist that change efforts just won't work.
Kotter offers his insights on why urgency is so essential to create if a company hopes to achieve sustainable transformation.
S+B: What can be done to heighten a sense of urgency at companies?
KOTTER: So much of urgency is an emotional determination to make something happen, to win, and to do it now. When Louis Gerstner first became CEO of IBM in the early 1990s, the company was hugely complacent. And he told everyone, "We're going to win. We might not win the series, but we are going to win the next game. We aren't going to take days off -- that's not how you get there. That's not how you make big things happen. I'm not asking you to work 200 hours a week and die. What you've got to do is take all the junk that you're doing right now -- and trust me, you're doing lots of junk and get rid of it, purge it, delegate it, whatever." Once you do that, all of a sudden there's more time to pay attention to opportunities and hazards and to do that consistently, without fail and without letup.
S+B: This seems to get back to the head-heart strategy for change you recommended in your book, "The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations" (with Dan S. Cohen; Harvard Business School Press, 2002) -- that is, managers must motivate people by reaching their hearts as well as their heads.
KOTTER: Exactly. The fundamental strategy for managing all change, not just creating a sense of urgency, is always a headheart strategy, not just a head strategy.
A few years ago, I attended some top management meetings at a large company held in hopes of addressing directly some serious competitive challenges. One guy gets up and presents his material the same way almost everybody does it. He starts showing his 150 PowerPoint slides, and he's a very smart guy, and a lot of what he's saying is: "There are problems. We've got to jump on it."
Then another guy gets up, and he uses one-tenth as many slides, choosing only the slides that were more dramatic in their implications. He spends a lot of time telling stories about the company, about what it was like when he first joined, about what's changed. And I remember being blown away by his presentation, and then noticing other people talking about it. The first guy just disappears, and the second guy is the one who has the powerful impact on the meeting, in that very emotional dimension we're talking about.
S+B: How difficult is it to maintain that level of emotional commitment?
KOTTER: It's very difficult, and it's a real balancing act. The other side of the complacency coin is what I call "false urgency," and it's just as counterproductive as complacency. Often, when I ask people about their sense of urgency, they'll tell me, "Are you kidding? People are running around like crazy, working as hard as they can." But what they're really saying is that they're scared to death or mad as can be, so they're running from meeting to meeting, doing all kinds of useless stuff. It's all activity, not productivity, and they look at it and think it's urgency. They see all of the frenetic activity, and they say to themselves, "A lack of urgency isn't the problem. Look, everybody's running." In many ways false urgency can be more insidious and more dangerous even than complacency.
I use the term urgent patience to describe what that balance point is. People have to understand that to make anything big happen, it's going to take a while. It might take one year, two years, three years, five years. But there's no reason you can't understand the patience true change requires and at the same time think, "I'm going to get up today, and I'm going to accomplish something that contributes to that change effort. I don't have to spend all day on it. But even if I succeed in redirecting one meeting for 10 minutes in a way that starts pushing on this issue, then OK, I've accomplished something."
Edward Baker, former editor of CIO Insight magazine, is a contributing editor at Strategy+Business.