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Too many people and organizations suffer from complacency and that, says management guru John Kotter, 'can create disaster-literally, disaster.' Here's what CIOs and other managers need to do—now.
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By Ellen Pearlman
Strategic Thinker: John P. Kotter
Kotter is the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership, Emeritus, at Harvard Business School. He is recognized as a leading authority on leadership and change. He has published 16 books, 12 of which have been bestsellers, including Leading Change. In October 2001, BusinessWeek magazine rated him the number one leadership guru in America.
A strong sense of urgency is moving from an essential element in big change programs to an essential asset in general.
A Sense of Urgency, published by Harvard Business Press, September 2008.
"A sense of urgency is not an attitude that I must have the project team meeting today, but that the meeting must accomplish something important today." John Kotter
The August 2008 issue of the McKinsey Quarterly reported the results of a global survey of about 3,200 executives that asked about a recent major change effort at their companies. The study found that only a third of transformations of any kind were deemed very or extremely successful. Not a very good record when one considers what's at stake in mastering the rapid pace of change we face in a global economy. It's not only critically important to handle a single transformation successfully; it's essential to handle continuous change well.
Renowned author John P. Kotter has frequently written about change. In fact, his research for Leading Change, which was published 12 years ago, showed the same dismal results as the McKinsey study-more than 70% of the substantial change efforts he studied failed, or changes were achieved but over budget, late and with great frustration. In 10% of the cases, however, people achieved more than would have been thought possible, he says in the introduction to his latest book on the subject, A Sense of Urgency. His earlier research led him to discover eight steps that the most successful companies followed. One of those steps was a sense of urgency that change was necessary. He now believes that the biggest error people make when they attempt major change is "they did not create a high enough sense of urgency among enough people to set the stage for making a challenging leap into some new direction."
Unfortunately, too many people and organizations suffer from complacency. They are more than willing to rest on their past laurels and may not even notice that times are changing. If they are still excelling in their markets then they have difficulty seeing the troubles that may be lurking around the corner. Says Kotter, "In a fast-moving and changing world, a sleepy or steadfast contentment with the status quo can create disaster-literally, disaster." Complacency is often an unconscious emotion, a feeling a person has about what they need to do or not do and not a carefully thought out analysis of a situation. Complacent people don't look for new opportunities or problems, they move slowly, tend to focus on internal matters and they rarely initiate or lead.
In other companies, manager mistake the energetic activity all around them-meeting after meeting, long agendas, endless PowerPoint presentations-to mean that workers have a sense of urgency. But often this is not what is going on. The frenetic activity is deceptive and may be driven by intense pressures put on a group that create anxiety and anger. This type of activity is "more distracting that useful," says Kotter. It's a "false sense of urgency" and may be even more destructive than complacency because it "drains needed energy in activity and not productivity," he adds. A true sense of urgency, Kotter continues, is "driven by a deep determination to win, not anxiety about losing." People suffering from a false sense of urgency tend to be anxious, angry, frustrated and tired. With both complacency and false urgency people look inward and can miss what is necessary to win.
Next: Your Organization Too Complacent? Here's How To Find Out