Movers and shakers in the world are a diverse bunch but they have one thing in common: a sense of urgency. We all have the same 24 hours in a day; the difference is what we choose to do with it. Marie Curie, Steve Jobs, Beyonce, and your most hated and beloved politicians probably don’t seem like peers, but there’s one thing they’d agree on - time is valuable and it can be incredibly fruitful. So in a world of distractions, complacency, and epic naps, how do we overcome the malaise and noise so that we can be successful?
Leadership and Change expert John P. Kotter knows something about success - when he’s not teaching at the Harvard Business School, he’s founding management consulting firms, conducting speaking engagements, or writing a bestselling business treatise (he’s up to twenty works so far). He defines urgency as “a combination of thoughts, feelings, and actual behavior. The thoughts are [great opportunities and great hazards]. The feelings are a gut-level determination that we’re going to do something now...And the behavior is this hyper-alertness to what’s going on. It’s a sense of coming to work each and every day with a commitment to making something happen that’s on the important issues. It’s a sense you give off to other people that, we’ve got to get going on this because it’s so important.”
In his 2008 book “A Sense of Urgency”, Kotter identifies four tactics to establish urgency:
Show the outside world - Hiding away the external opportunities erodes motivation and exhibits fear of competition. If your workplace culture says “we know best”, the feeling of superiority and expertise creates a false sense of security that slows work product. This is why competition is healthy.
Move with urgency yourself - A manager who doesn’t display urgency won’t see fast results. You need it done, let’s go! Walk the walk without being overbearing. You’re efficient and confident and you believe your coworkers and staff to be of equal ability.
Find the opportunity in crisis - Every cloud has a silver lining, and in a culture of urgency, you’ll find it. Bad news is just a learning experience, and making that failure visible means you can solve the problem. Leverage it to break through complacency in the workplace. A setback is upsetting but they occur - so learn from it and make it a success. Frequently miss deadlines in the office? Cause a scene and fix it. Create a timeline for working toward deadline that identifies the breakdowns early and gets things out on time - even early!
Put the change-resistant folks in their place - Hopefully you inspire them and their “place” isn’t outside of your company. But there is always someone who doesn’t handle change well, and change is necessary for growth. Get them excited for all the new things coming too - you might have to let them hang on to a few familiar things, but you probably have a few momentos on your desk too. Look at their resistance as needing a feeling of security, provide it for them, and shake their comfort zones just enough to get everyone in the right direction.
Okay, but what are some concrete actions to create this culture of urgency using these broad tactics? In simpler terms, they really come down to just a few principles - don’t procrastinate, solve problems quickly, and focus on goals. Every action in your workplace should center around these ideas. When the problem, task, or goal is on the radar, create a plan and make actionable tasks to work toward the resolution.
Kotter says a true culture of urgency is rare - “[i]t has to created and recreated”. It’s simply not the natural order of things because it requires too much energy to sustain when not motivated by ambition. But the alternative is mediocrity. Transformation and growth therefore require a cultivated sense of urgency and leaders must plant the seed organically. He argues that it’s more necessary now than ever before because change is happening faster than it ever has - to keep up with the world, we have to move faster.
So in a world that revolves around change and transition, the days of corporate complacency and caution are over. There is no more status quo - unless that status quo is some level of comfort existing in uncertainty, with the opportunities and wisdom that come from it. Procrastination breeds failure while urgency creates success, but it isn’t necessarily that simple - there’s something to be said for planning, but then there are over-planners who it turns out are just afraid of failure and so never get started. Some simply need support or guidance to catch that contagious sense of urgency, and that’s where leaders’ attitudes are fundamental. Not only are you a mover and a shaker in this new world of constant, rapid change, but you don’t leave your team behind either.