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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Good Urgency vs Bad Urgency

The challenge for many leaders of continuous improvement is two fold. First, you must inspire the desire or enthusiasm necessary to change. Second, you must harness this energy in the right direction. To make this change real and combat complacency, the death of many an organization, leaders seek to create a sense of urgency. John P. Kotter, a Harvard Business School Professor and author of A Sense of Urgency, was recently interviewed by Inc.com about leading during a recession.

Kotter believes there are two kinds of urgency -- and, like cholesterol, one is good and one is bad. The good kind is characterized by constant scrutiny of external promise and peril. It involves relentless focus on doing only those things that move the business forward in the marketplace and on doing them right now, if not sooner. The bad kind -- to which many companies have recently succumbed -- is panic driven and characterized by breathless activity that winds up producing nothing demonstrably new.

Kotter advocates using crises like this economic downturn to your advantage when creating a true urgency. He warns that if you use a crisis for urgency it must be managed with clear plans and actions, significant in size, visible, and unambiguous to real business problems.

If you want to tell whether you have bad urgency, Kotter recommends trying the white space calendar test.

There are lots of signs of false urgency. Frenetic activity. Everyone is exhausted, working 14-hour days. One red flag is how difficult it is to schedule a meeting. With true urgency, people leave lots of white space on their calendars, because they recognize that the important stuff -- the stuff they need to deal with immediately -- is going to happen. If you're overbooked, you can't manage pressing problems or even recognize they're pressing until too late.
People think that in urgent situations, they're expected to take on more and more. They're worried about keeping their jobs, so they try to demonstrate their value by being incredibly busy. But the leader should be telling them to do just the opposite. He should say, "I want everyone to look at your calendars. What's on there that doesn't clearly move us forward? Get rid of it!"

In Lean environments change is expected through a constant Plan-Do-Check-Act process of reflection and problem solving. You can always do better and you must strive for True North. To do this you need everyone to make improvements toward your Ideal State.

True urgency is the most important precursor of real change. Seventy percent of change efforts fail or never launch at all, and one reason is that company leaders don't create a sense of urgency around what they're doing.

Kotter was asked about how much attention you should pay to internal issues versus the outside world. His answer in Lean terms is what we call adding value from the voice of the customer.

There should be no meetings that are only about internal matters, without any connection to the outside world. In some way, the outside world always provides the "why" we are doing something.

Many organizations struggle to create the change necessary and many more of them can not sustain the gains of their change. Furthermore, there are many examples of companies picking the wrong sense of urgency and failing. Do you have a true sense of urgency? Does it come from the customer? What does the calendar at your organization look like?

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