A Sense of Urgency, by John Kotter, is a solid book – not his best, but worth a read and happily short, as most business books should be. I originally was going to hold off on writing this post until I had more time, but the subject matter alone made me think that was a mistake and that I should write it while it’s fresh in my mind. <g>
The three tools to fight complacency are the organizing framework for the book — bring the outside in, behave with urgency every day, and turn crises into opportunities — are all good thoughts, and good reminders of basic management principles. But there were a couple other themes worth calling out even more.
First up, the notion that there is a vicious cycle at play in that urgency begets success which creates complacency which then requires but does not beget urgency. The theme is really that success can drive arrogance, stability, and scale that requires inward focus — not that success itself is bad, just that it requires an extra level of vigilance to make sure it doesn’t lead to complacency. I’ve seen this cycle at different times over the years in lots of organizations, and it’s one of the reasons that if you look at the original companies on the Dow Jones Industrials index when it was expanded from 12 to 30 around 100 years ago, only one of them (GE) still exists.
Second, that busy-ness can masquerade as urgency but actually undermines urgency. A full calendar doesn’t mean you’re behaving with urgency. Kotter’s example of an Indian manager is great:
If you watch the Indian manager’s behavior carefully and contrast it with the hospital executive’s, you find that the former relentlessly eliminates low-priority items from his appointment diary. He eliminates clutter on the agenda of the meetings that do make it into his diary. The space that is freed up allows him to move faster. It allows him to follow up quickly on the action items that come out of meetings. The time freed up allows him to hold impromptu interactions that push along important projects faster. The open space allows him to talk more about issues he thinks are crucial, about what is happening with customers and competitors, and about the technological change affecting his business.
Finally, Kotter’s theme of “Urgent patience” is a wonderful turn of phrase. As he says,
It means acting each day with a sense of urgency but having a realistic view of time. It means recognizing that five years may be needed to attain important and ambitious goals, and yet coming to work each day committed to finding every opportunity to make progress toward those goals.
How true is that? It’s not just that big ships take a long time to turn…it’s that big opportunities take a long time to pursue and get right. If they didn’t…everyone would do them! Urgent patience is what allows you to install a bias for action in your team without causing panic and frenzy, which is never productive.
Thanks to my friend Chad Dickerson for recommending this book, a great read as part of Operation Reboot Matt.