The author of more than 20 books, including his most recent book Change, John Kotter is widely known for his eight-step plan for leading and managing change.
A classic model
One of the world’s leading thinkers and writers on the topic of change management, Kotter has transformed the landscape of business education in general and leadership development in particular. Through his private consultancy, he has provided organizations of all types with advice on planning for change. And as a professor (emeritus) at Harvard Business School, he has helped an entire new generation of leaders and educators, giving them a more nuanced understanding of the importance of planning for change and the tools for engaging with it successfully.
The eight steps in Kotter’s change model move from initial ideation through creating a change-focused team, communicating a vision, and moving through key milestones toward the goal of consolidating change and preparing for the developments necessitated by it.
Urgency is Step 1
In this model, meaningful progress begins with creating a sense of urgency. This first step is worth investigating more thoroughly on its own, and it has even provided the title for one of Kotter’s books.
Published by Harvard Business Press in 2008, A Sense of Urgency offers numerous real-world examples drawn from the author’s consulting work to show how organizations that have fallen into complacency can reawaken their commitment to create long-overdue change – and do so with purpose and optimism.
Why did Kotter place a sense of urgency at the top of the list in managing change? He considers it the hardest to achieve among his eight steps. Without it, no change plan in the world stands a chance of getting off the ground, let alone succeeding. In fact, his research shows that the most significant mistake made by people leading major change efforts is failure to ignite a sufficiently intense sense of urgency in those most affected by the change.
In Kotter’s view, a sense of urgency is powered less by the feeling that “everything is a mess” and more by the understanding that “great opportunities” exist side by side with “great hazards.” Urgency, he points out, is at its core a powerful “determination to move, and win, now.”
A roadmap of urgency
Through this book, Kotter gives leaders the tools they need to get people to see – and feel in their bones – the necessity for change. Additionally, he provides a crucial take on how to keep the sense of urgency alive after an organization has started to gain traction with a change strategy.
Kotter’s advice is proactive and eminently practical. And his writing style is, as usual, clear and on point, organized in easy-to-follow bullet points, charts, and summaries that facilitate the incorporation of strategies and his lessons from years of working with organizations in practice.
Kotter counsels company leaders to take steps, which center on motivating teams by engaging both the head and the heart, on the path toward creating a sense of urgency.
Bring the outside in
Break down not only the logistical and intellectual silos that isolate a company from the outside world, but also individual work groups that can limit employees’ contact with each other. In other words, banish insularity and “bring the outside in.”
Kotter specifically advises companies to pay special attention to what customer-facing team members have learned and to share outside information that can challenge managers’ hide-bound thinking. He encourages inviting practitioners and experts from the outside to share their experiences, as well as sending internal staff out to engage more with customers.
Bring action, information, and optimism to life
Align actions with words. Focus on acting with a sense of urgency as part of the daily fabric of behavior. In this way, urgency will become an inherent, authentic part of a leader’s – and an organization’s – identity. Addressing the need for urgency only once a year in reviews and performance plans can easily lead to complacency.
Make facts, figures, and information dynamic if not dramatic rather than offering bland data starved for human interest and context.
Look for opportunity in crisis, which often spurs creativity and initiative and, in turn, provides the impetus for a greater sense of urgency.
Overcome the naysayers
Confronting negativity strategically is one of the hallmarks of a genuine leader, but it’s also one of the most challenging skills to master.
In A Sense of Urgency, Kotter provides a special section on coping with naysayers within and outside of an organization. In the view of many of its readers, this part alone is worth the price of the book, which provides the author’s practical insights on how to manage dissent in the most constructive way possible.
Kotter includes ideas on how to move past simply making a business case for change, diving deeper into addressing the fear, anxiety, and even anger that can overwhelm people to the point where they refuse to see the need for urgency.
In the words of Kotter himself, “The future begins today.”