Leading change: creating a sense of urgency

From Adeste+ Summer School 2020 talk by Macarena Cuenca, University of Deusto.

Urgency Up, Complacency Down

I have a tip for you: whenever you're starting a major change and it doesn't matter what kind of a change it is, if it's a merger, if it's a reorganization, if it's trying to change the culture somehow, to make it less risk averse, the first step is always getting a sense of urgency up among the people who will be affected. At This helps to counteract complacency and manage other negative feelings: anxiety, anger…

Now let me tell you why it's important. In the vast majority of cases that I've studied over the years, this is NOT where people start. In 90% cases of significant change, people do not meet the aspirations they had at the beginning of the change process. In 20% to 30%, they will admit the whole thing was a complete failure and they had to abandon it or start over again. If you look at the 10% that DO meet their aspirations and get it done on time, on budget, without huge amounts of pain, always you find they have begun by creating a sense of urgency and reducing complacency.

Getting attention

What do people often do besides that? They appoint a task force, or a few smart people or they hire a consultant, and they go off into a room and start working on the solution to the change problem.

They often work in secrecy, always with the logic “we don't want to worry the troops”, “people have got to get their jobs done today” “we've got to meet a quarterly results”, “what if it gets out to the press and that creates a problem that could even affect pur share price”. But people are more likely to accept the need for speed, discretion and change where they share a sense of urgency. And if you do anything else first it might work for a little while but eventually when you try get people behind the strategy, people wont hear or understand it… Complacency makes people think: “Ah? What's this all about? Why are you bothering me? What what?” This is a waste of time…

Shared priorities

So you've got a brilliant strategy and nobody wants even hear about it because they don't get why you're worrying about the strategy… Or you're trying to pull Harry into this team that's going to make this thing work and Harry's got 112 other things to do on his agenda. And, maybe he politely says ok I'll do it but he treats it on priority number 22… He comes to some meetings, misses some meetings and it's for all practical purposes useless, because he didn't have the sense of urgency. This is from the point of view of making big changes a huge issue. People get it wrong all the time you don't have to if you understand that simple tip.

Extracts from a video by John P. Kotter, an internationally known author on leadership and change.
This video was used by Macarena Cuenca (University of Deusto, Bilbao) in the Adeste+ Summer School 2020 to illustrate step 2, "Unfreeze", of the ACED methodology.

Watch this video

Published on 16 June 2021

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