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(originally published by Booz & Company)


Hearts and Minds

Harvard Business School Professor John Kotter on why urgency in the face of change matters — right now.

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, whose numerous books on the subject include Leading Change (Harvard Business School Press, 1996) and Our Iceberg is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions (with Holger Rathgeber; St. Martin’s Press, 2006).

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.

None of this is easy, Kotter says, but it can be extremely worthwhile. In an interview with the editors of strategy+business he offered his insights on why urgency is so essential to create if a company hopes to achieve sustainable transformation.

S+B: You have written a number of successful books on how to lead change. What warranted another one?
KOTTER: I argued in Leading Change that real change involves a multi-step process: (1) get the urgency up, (2) pull the right team together to focus on the correct vision and strategy, (3) communicate it to the right people for buy-in, (4) remove the barriers so you empower the people who bought in to act, (5) make sure that you’ve done it in a way that then creates some short-term successes, (6) and finally, don’t let urgency subside. When urgency starts to abate, the whole effort can easily collapse.

I’ve thought a lot about which of the steps people struggle with most. The answer, I believe, is the first step: How to generate a sense of real urgency. A lot of people I talk to, unfortunately, don’t understand how to do that very well. They face some very predictable problems, and yet they have a finite set of solutions for strategically and tactically raising the level of urgency to solve these problems.

About a year ago, a friend asked whether I thought the world was moving from episodic to continuous change. I said, “Sure.” And he asked, “Well, what are the implications for creating a sense of urgency?” And I started to think about that. When change becomes continuous, a sense of urgency becomes a generic asset, an ongoing requirement, not just the beginning of a change effort that you’ve got to get right. And that notion is what led to this book.

S+B: Why is creating a sense of urgency so difficult for so many companies?
KOTTER: First of all, a lot of companies simply have never felt a sense of urgency. They didn’t grow up on it, and if it’s not in their history, their culture, or their DNA, they struggle. And why is that? More mature companies got used to a slower-moving world, with more oligopolistic industries, less competition, a lack of global forces blowing up those oligopolies, slower technological advances, and longer product life cycles. I remember a DuPont executive telling me, “After World War II we had a product line that was technologically relevant for 20 years. Nowadays, none of mine last five years.”

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  1. John Jones, DeAnne Aguirre, and Matthew Calderone, “The 10 Principles of Change Management,” s+b, Summer 2004: An excellent guide to creating change in large companies.
  2. Richard Rawlinson, Christopher Hannegan , Ashley Harshak, and David Suarez, “Change Management Graduates to the Boardroom: From Afterthought to Prerequisite,” Booz & Company white paper, June 2008: A new study shows the importance of managing people in executing change.
  3. Change Management Learning Center Web site: A comprehensive list of articles on the art and science of managing change.
  4. Our Iceberg Is Melting Web site: Information and links pertaining to Kotter’s books and ideas about managing and motivating change.
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