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Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Sense of Urgency: Good or Bad?

When the topic of sense of urgency comes up, most leaders would agree it’s a discriminator which can mean the difference between thriving or surviving. It shows drive and purpose in an individual or business. It’s usually contagious, so the display of urgency will influence others to demonstrate drive as well. As a leader, I’ve learned that having a sense of urgency is important, but not always the only thing to consider. Let’s take a deeper dive into this behavior.

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.

Here is how Kotter explains the difference in an 
interview with Inc.com.

  • Bad Urgency. "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."
  • Good Urgency. "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!' True urgency is the most important precursor of real change."

Urgency is important because meaningful organizational change cannot occur without the cooperation of the affected stakeholders. This is why creating a sense of urgency for a needed change is the first step leaders must take to gain the cooperation of management and employees.

There are several steps leaders can take to create a sense of urgency and gain the commitment of managers, employees, and other stakeholders.

They include the following:

·        Showing the seriousness of leadership commitment to the coming change by eliminating obvious waste;

·        Sharing  bad news with the organization;

·        Requiring managers and employees to talk directly regularly with unhappy suppliers, customers, and other stakeholders to understand their concerns;

·        Sharing data throughout the organization that supports the claim that change is necessary; and

·        Ensuring organizational decisions and management actions are in agreement with change communications (walk the talk).


Leaders create a sense of urgency by both selling the value of a future state to organizational stakeholders and making the status quo a dangerous place for the stakeholders to remain.  In effect, senior leaders create a compelling narrative that tells stakeholders why it is not in their best interest for the organization to stay in its current state.

This is often done through frank discussions about the current market and competitive realities, sharing relevant financial and customer data, and discussing opportunities and crises facing the organization.  Communication is critical and the communications about the urgent need for change must be honest.  A manufactured sense of urgency will soon be seen for what it is and this will doom a change effort to mediocrity.

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