Book Review - A Sense Of Urgency, by John P Kotter

Published By Harvard Business Press, 2008

What was true more than two thousand years ago is just as true today. We live in a world where "business as usual" IS change. New initiatives, project-based working, technology improvements, staying ahead of the competition, emerging stronger from the recession - together these drive changes to the way we work.

Whether you're considering a small change to one or two processes, or a system wide change to an organisation, it's common to feel uneasy and intimidated by the scale of the challenge. You know that the change needs to happen, but you don't really know how to go about doing delivering it. Where do you start? Whom do you involve? How do you see it through to the end?

There are many theories about how to "do" change but one of the most influential thinkers in the field is John Kotter, a Professor from Harvard Business School. His original book and HBR article was called "Leading Change" in which he introduced a framework of 8 steps to help leaders think through the challenges of planning and implementing significant business changes. What I particularly liked about his original book was the title - the contrasting mindset around the need to lead rather than simply manage change is critically important in my "Leading Business Change, Lessons From Successful Companies".

Book Review

In his most recent book, A Sense of Urgency, Kotter builds on this earlier thinking - in fact the book title is the first step in his change leadership process. After more than a decade of research and practice he has come to the conclusion that it all starts with urgency - and the right type of urgency. "A Sense of Urgency: winners first make sure that a sufficient number of people feel a true sense of urgency to look for an organisation's critical opportunities and hazards now."

His central point is that a true sense of urgency is rare and not a natural state of affairs - complacency and comfort with how things are is the norm. Others have characterized this as the importance of creating a "burning platform" underneath an organisation.

Kotter's key reflection is that even in organisations that do this well, urgency tends to collapse after a few successes - because sustaining urgency is tough. The question the book tackles is how do you shift urgency from being an important issue every few years to a powerful asset all the time - how do you develop the change leadership capability across the whole organisation?

Kotter's book outlines one strategy and four tactics:

The strategy for increasing true urgency:

  • Create action that is exceptionally alert, externally oriented, relentlessly aimed at winning, making some progress each and every day, and constantly purging low value-added activities - all by always focusing on the heart and not just the mind.

The four tactics:

  • Bring the outside in - facts and emotions
  • Behave with urgency each day - provide personal leadership and never act complacent angry or anxious
  • Find Opportunity in crisis - see if the crisis can be a friend and well as an enemy
  • Deal with those who "No No" - remove or neutralise all relentless urgency killers - those who keep a group complacent rather than the sceptical

I have to admit to being a fan of Kotter's work having used his framework to help business leaders deliver their business goals. However, I have always found it important to tailor these ideas to the language and culture of the particular business. To be frank Kotter's latest book does not add much that is new to his original work - the 196 pages of A Sense of Urgency is an easy read because it is widely spaced and focused on just one strategy and four tactics.

In summary the latest book feels like it sets out to milk the original idea - but I would recommend reading the original "idea cow" first, before investing in this one.

Geoff Rogers, Director
Value Partnership LLP


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