Monday 1 September 2008

John Kotter / A Sense of Urgency


   I'm a big fan of Kotter's 8 steps and have just been reading his new book, 'A Sense of Urgency'.

Kotter notes that the he still finds the same sort of range of success in managing change that he first identified 11 years ago - that roughly 70% of change initiatives fail.

This is a shocking finding, although there is some alternative evidence to suggest we are getting better at it - for example Towers Perrin's research suggests that post M&A share price under performed against the market by 6.5% in the 1980s but now beats the world index by 9%.

This book deals specifically with the first of Kotter's steps - creating a high enough sense of urgency among a large enough group of people.

Kotter explains that one major problem in creating urgency is high levels of complacency.  People tend to be either too comfortable with the status quo ("They pay insufficient attention to wonderful new opportunities and frightening new hazards.  They continue with what has been the norm in the past") or get distracted into 'false urgency': ("An enormous amount of activity") which I think is often about people focusing on activity rather than outcome (something which seems to be particularly prevalent within HR).

I agree, although my work on HCM related change often identifies lack of ambition as a great a barrier as complacency.

Kotter also points out that in a world where the rate of change is going up and up, "a strong sense of urgency is moving from an essential element in big change programmes to an essential asset in general".

Kotter talks about a sense of urgency as part of an organisation's culture, but I think what he's really talking about is having this as an organisational capability.

The book is a good read, and Kotter has some valuable thoughts on this first step in his change management process.  I particularly like Kotter's emphasis on balancing conscious, rational analysis (head) with unconscious emotion (heart) building on his discussions in 'The Heart of Change'

"People usually treat complacency as a state of mind that can be changed solely with the 'cold, hard facts'."  But "feelings are more more influential than thoughts".

This is something that a lot of people working with HR measurements strangely forget (strangely because HR people should surely understand this).

However, I still have one worry about the book and Kotter's process which is that many of the 70% of failed change projects Kotter refers to will have used his process or something similar - and still failed.  And I don't think more focus on urgency would have necessary made that much difference to these.

A sense of urgency would be a powerful organisational capability, but managing change effectively still takes more and different approaches than those Kotter identifies.  I'll post on what I think these are later this month.



  1. Jon, interesting stuff and I look forward to reading your next posts on this subject.

    We've done some work recently on how different personality types respond to change programmes.

    I think some types (who, let's say, are currently complacent) will feel more engaged and refreshed when faced with cold, hard facts. If they're driven by rational discipline this will get them going.

    Others, though, can be inspired more easily through the "heart" - an appeal to their sense of team, togetherness and duty perhaps.

    So perhaps the best change agents are those that are able to deliver the right messages to the different types of individual. Perhaps this is an organisational capability to aim for?

  2. Thanks for link to Kotter - really interesting.

    I agree with your point about complacency. For me initiating change is about painting a compelling picture for people that is strong enough to persuade them to make what could be a difficult journey to get there. The role of a leader is critical to this process.



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