Leadership Perspectives

Leading change? Create a sense of urgency.

So many leaders that I talk to lament how difficult it is to effect change.  The most seemingly minor changes require Herculean efforts to implement as employees kick, balk, and sabotage.

One CEO recently complained to me of the ridiculous amount of time he spent listening to complaints and talking to employees about the adoption of a new coffee making system while they offered every reason why they should keep the old system.  (Okay, as a tea drinker, I get that.  I’ve watched in dismay as k-cups have taken over the universe, because I’ve never had a cup of tea from a k-cup that I thought tasted good.  But, as they say, I digress.)

Change isn’t easy, even when driven from the top.  Early in my career I worked for a company president who lamented how difficult it was to change anything from the top of an organization.  He was a pretty progressive guy for the time.  He’d been off to Tom Peters’ skunk camp and was extremely dedicated to running a company that treated both its customers and its employees well.  He was frustrated because he wanted to do lots of great things but they involved change, and getting people to adapt to the changes that he offered was so hard.

It wasn’t that he was a bad guy or even that the changes he wanted to make were inherently bad.  But they were changes, and people essentially distrust and dislike change – especially if they don’t see an urgency to do so.

You have got to have a sense of urgency.  People typically change because they want to avoid something that they believe will happen without the change.  Despite that, if there is not a sufficient sense of urgency, they still don’t change.

Think about losing that extra 10 pounds.  You know that if you don’t do something it will turn into 12 pounds, and then 15, and then 20. But it creeps up slowly.  It’s not until you receive the invitation to your class reunion that you feel sufficiently moved by a sense of urgency to actually hit the gym and cut the processed carbs.

John Kotter, who wrote the book on Leading Change finds this first step so important that he followed his classic book with another book entirely devoted to A Sense of Urgency.”  Kotter says that creating the necessary sense of urgency is the hardest, yet most important, step in implementing a change effort.

Creating urgency.  One of Kotter’s solutions is to create a crisis.  Having seen people beaten down dealing with the crisis du jour too many times, I struggle with that one, but I do see his point.  Nothing rallies people to change faster than a major crisis.

I like the idea of hitting people (bombard is the word Kotter uses) with information about potential opportunities for the organization, as well as the rich reward within those opportunities; then explaining why those opportunities can’t be realized without change.

And although this surely seems self-serving on my part, I also agree with his idea of using consultants to force honest discussions.  It is sometimes simply too easy for insiders to become complacent and delude themselves by not taking a square look at the facts.

If you’ve tried recently to effect change, only to find yourself frustrated, you’ve got to ask yourself “What’s the sense of urgency?”


  1. Marie –

    I agree with you about creating a sense of urgency for change. In a study I did a number of years ago I found that organizations that did a great job of addressing why a change was needed, had far less resistance and greater success.

    Making a case (or creating a sense of urgency) seems to make sense to leaders, but they often have difficulty turning that knowledge into action. Here is something I suggest to my clients.

    Making a case must address three things:
    1. Do people understand what you are talking about?
    2. Do they feel in their bones why this is urgent?
    3. Do they trust the person or group telling them that this is importance?

    Failure to address even one of those items can result in people merely shrugging their shoulders and thinking, “another flavor of the month.”

    If a leader can’t address all three (especially 2 – people feeling the urgency) then I think they need to ask themselves if this change is really all that important.

    Rick Maurer

  2. Thanks for your comment Rick.
    I think that it goes well beyond making a case. I see lots of leaders make their case. But their “case” depends on long-term, uncertain, potential consequences. Their case for change is important, but it still isn’t urgent.
    You hit the nail on the head – people have to feel it in their bones.
    While I was discussing this concept with a CEO recently, I could see that he was really chewing on it and giving it consideration. Finally he said “Well the urgency for them is that if they don’t get with the program, they won’t work here!”
    Hmmm… THAT does create a certain sense of urgency.
    We went on to agree that an ultimatum wasn’t going to be the best motivator. Stay tuned – we’ll talk more about the essential elements of leading effective change in future posts.

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