Book Review: A Sense of Urgency



August 2009

Book Review-A Sense of Urgency

CIDMIconNewsletter Bill Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

As you probably are aware, JoAnn Hackos, CIDM Director with the assistance of the Advisory Council, selects a theme and theme book for CIDM’s Best Practices Conference each September. A few of you may remember that the theme book for the 2003 Conference was The Heart of Change by John Kotter and Dan Cohen. The Advisory Council has chosen another book by John Kotter, A Sense of Urgency, for this year’s Best Practices Conference in Vancouver, Washington (Not Canada!), September 14 through 16.

In The Heart of Change, Kotter describes, using case studies, how people have successfully led their organizations through a major change. He describes eight actions that have resulted in a large-scale change.

Briefly these are

1. Increase urgency

2. Build the guiding team

3. Get the vision right

4. Communicate for buy-in

5. Empower action

6. Create short-term wins

7. Don’t let up

8. Make change stick

In the six years between the publication of The Heart of Change and A Sense of Urgency, Kotter has decided that the first action, “Increase urgency,” is the most critical. Without a sense of urgency throughout an organization, the remaining actions will fail.

Kotter points out that complacency rules in many organizations. Complacency is a safe haven for many of us. “Things may not be great but at least I know what they are. By changing the status quo, I risk making things worse.”

Kotter points out that complacency may result from previous success. An organization that has been highly successful in the past may maintain the status quo long afterward when the organization is declining or even failing. Think of Smith Corona, which was never able to free itself from the obsolete typewriter. This point is especially relevant in today’s recessionary times when most of our organizations are suffering. We tend to have the attitude: “It’s not my fault. The economy is the problem.”

Kotter defines a true sense of urgency as opposed to a false sense of urgency. A false sense of urgency is accompanied by blame and frustration. It involves a lot of frenetic behavior, meetings, emails, task forces, new projects, and presentations. People are generally more interested in protecting their jobs than concerned about company success. Actions are focused on internal matters rather than looking outside the company to customers and sales.

A true sense of urgency is characterized by obtaining information from outside the company, a desire to move the company forward, and drive to get something important for the company done now. It is not accompanied by lots of useless activity but is focused on moving the company forward. People with a true sense of urgency are looking for opportunities associated with crises rather than fearing the future.

The bulk of Kotter’s book explains how to instill a true sense of urgency in your organization. Kotter says that to promote a sense of urgency in your organization, you must promote your goals in an emotional way, focusing on the heart and not just the mind.

  • Bring in information from the outside, rather than looking only internally. After all, your customers don’t work for you organization. If possible, take your people outside to your customers so they can develop knowledge and insights for themselves.
  • You yourself must demonstrate to others that you have a strong sense of urgency.
  • Sometimes the best opportunities for change occur because of a crisis. Take advantage of crises.
  • Be careful to neutralize or remove from your initiative the NoNos. NoNos are people who try to sabotage your initiative to preserve the status quo.

As an information-development organization, you may feel true urgency to improve the usability of you information or you may want to increase the efficiency of your operation to make you company’s products more competitive.

Beware of complacently looking inward. Your task is not to produce works of art but to support your company’s products. You are not the company’s grammar police. Too often, writers become more interested in the technicalities of writing rather than focusing on customer needs. If you move to a CMS, XML, DocBook, or DITA, be sure that you are serving your customers while increasing your group’s efficiency. Remember, these are tools, not bragging rights.

For an information-development organization, now is the time to take advantage of the current recession and staff cutbacks. More than ever, you must improve your efficiency. Improvements you make now will be invaluable when your company is back to “full steam ahead” after the recession ends.

Kotter spends most of the rest of the book detailing tactics to support the four key activities listed above. I have found the book to be especially relevant in the current recession. Now is the time to read the book and take action immediately while you still have a crisis that is disrupting the status quo.

You may be able to develop tools to improve the sense of urgency that are not discussed in Kotter. At Comtech, for example, we have a bonus program that is based on profits. Employees do well if Comtech does well. At the same time we provide lots of revenue and profit and loss information to our staff so everyone gets frequent feedback about how their efforts relate to the success of the company as a whole. We think it works. Our challenge has been to keep up the urgency during the recession. This technique may be more difficult for an information-development group in a large company than for a small consulting company. But it can be done.

A Sense of Urgency is the theme of this year’s Best Practices Conference. I hope you can join us to discuss these issues with your colleagues.

We hope to greet you in September in Vancouver, Washington (Not Canada!) with a sense of urgency about the need for successful initiatives to promote quality information. CIDMIconNewsletter