A Sense of Urgency

JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

Long time participants in the Best Practices conference each September will remember the Innovator’s Forum in 2002. The Forum focused on John Kotter’s The Heart of Change1. Kotter details a 9-step process for implementing change in an organization. Not only was the book the focus of discussions at the Innovator’s Forum, but it was also the subject of the working group of managers that decided to test the process in the year after the conference.

The 2009 Best Practices will once again highlight John Kotter’s work. The theme book selected by the Advisory Council is Kotter’s A Sense of Urgency2. The new book highlights the first step in the Heart of Change, developing a sense of urgency within our organizations to support the critical need for change. Kotter points out that developing a sense of urgency is essential if change is to be taken seriously by those directly affected. Without a sense of urgency, it is far too easy for managers and staff to become complacent, settling in on what is familiar and comfortable rather than what is challenging and potentially difficult.

Given the current state of the economy and the pressure we are under as communication professionals to work more effectively and efficiently, change is not only a special occurrence but also an integral part of daily business. The Advisory Council members and I have just completed interviews with 90 percent of CIDM managers. They have all stressed the continuous pressure that has become a standard part of doing their work. All the managers focused on their need to change the way their organizations and their staff do their work and even what work they do.

Kotter’s research into the stories of hundreds of companies found that only 10 percent of organizations embarking on a change were successful. In fully 70 percent of the cases, change efforts were never started, failed, or went significantly over budget and time. In all of those cases, people ended up terribly frustrated and suspicious of future change initiatives.

The Single Biggest Reason that Change Fails

Kotter identified the single biggest reason that changes fail. People do not have a sufficient sense of urgency, a compelling reason to pursue the change and overcome their fears. Without a sufficient sense of urgency, people either fall into complacency or become so overwrought that their actions work against the change.

Let’s consider, for example, the organization that wants to restructure its information website so that it more closely meets user needs. Under the auspices of the senior management, they study the users and learn that the current website is badly organized, making it very difficult for users to find information quickly. In many cases, the users give up and look elsewhere. The user study makes it clear that the organization of the website needs substantial rework. The existing structure closely corresponded to the internal structure of the organization. Departments were responsible for their areas of the website content. Management decides that the new structure should move away from the internal departmental organization to a design more closely reflecting the users’ ideas about the content. No longer would support, training, and documentation have independent areas on the website.

However, once the new, user-oriented site structure has been defined, the web team offers it for review by the departments that are responsible for their areas of content. They immediately reject the new site structure, arguing that they need everything to stay the same as it has always been.

The problem in this organization is complacency. The existing departments feel no sense of urgency around the new content structure. They have never been informed by their management about the need for change. No sense of urgency has been developed. Likely, the website will revert back to its original design with a few new colors and graphics. It will be as unusable by the audience as it ever was.

The absence of any sense of urgency to better meet user needs derailed the project. Users will continue to go elsewhere for the content they need.

Kotter argues that complacency is much more common than managers might think. Success, even years earlier, suggest to people that they are doing all right and have no compelling reason to change.

Another organization might not be complacent but may have a false sense of urgency. In one project, the management was greatly concerned that their department might be eliminated in a downsizing move by senior management. They decided to implement a content management initiative to show that they could save costs and provide better information. A small team was dedicated to the change and given an unreasonable deadline. The team worked hard and met the deadline, only to be told that the change was no longer the right direction for the organization. Like many other changes in the past, the latest change initiative was cancelled so that it could be replaced by yet another initiative. Under those circumstances, the team members were justified in becoming increasingly suspicious of the latest new thing.

Change is No Longer an Option

CIDM managers find themselves inundated with continuous change. They report that they are being asked to

  • Decrease staff size and move more projects to low-cost economies
  • Participate in new agile product-development processes
  • Implement content management systems across the enterprise
  • Move to structured authoring and XML
  • Better serve customer information needs
  • Decrease the cost of translations
  • Make information more relevant to users
  • And so on

Not only is the pressure to change continuous, the change initiatives often seem at odds with one another. A strong sense of urgency is not only necessary to promote a single change event. That sense of urgency has to be maintained continuously.

Kotter’s book is filled with stories about project successes and failures. Like his other books, these stories are memorable. They stick with you. Many of you might remember the story from The Heart of Change that recounted the company employees who were confident that they were doing the best job possible and building the best product. That is, they thought that until management showed a video of the president of their largest customer describing how difficult their product was to implement and use. After an initial period of disbelief, the customer vision energized the employees and made it possible for them to improve the product and improve customer satisfaction.

Join Me at Best Practices, September 14-16, 2009

I hope that you too find building a sense of urgency to be a compelling subject. I hope it will motivate you to begin building your business case to attend the September Best Practices Conference in Vancouver, Washington. Consider how important change is today in your organization. Make your best case to demonstrate that you realize just how important it will be to institute a sense of urgency in your organization. Use that case to show that the cost of travel and attendance at this conference is a small price to pay for the long term benefit that will accrue to your company. See you there!

1 John P. Kotter and Dan S. Cohen, The Heart of Change, Harvard Business Press, Boston: MA, 2002.

2 John P. Kotter, A Sense of Urgency, Harvard Business Press,  Boston: MA, 2008.