Communicating a Sense of Urgency Featured

8:00pm EDT July 21, 2002
Whether your challenge is starting a new company, jump-starting a downsized organization, or nudging a proven performer up to the next level, creating an atmosphere for change is a necessary first step.

Anytime you are faced with leading people when some form of change is necessary, you will recognize some resistance. The magnitude of the resistance may vary, but it seems like it is always present.

In his book, Leading Change, John Kotter says, "In an organization with 100 employees, at least two dozen must go beyond the normal call of duty to produce a significant change." As the size of the organization increases, the number of people necessary to produce the change grows geometrically.

The enemy is often complacency. No matter what the circumstances, when people become comfortable, it's often difficult to get their attention and motivate them to commit to change. Sir Isaac Newton must have been thinking about these folks when he said, "A body at rest tends to remain at rest." Without a sense of urgency, it's difficult to build sufficient momentum to move your mountains. As Kotter says, "Never underestimate the magnitude of the forces that reinforce complacency and that help maintain the status quo."

The best way to overcome complacency is to communicate a sense of urgency. However, this isn't always as easy as it appears. If it's overused, or misused, the people may become cynical to the point where your credibility suffers. One way to avoid this problem is to be straightforward with your people. It makes little sense for management to maintain a lot of "happy talk" when the people know there are problems.

Several suggestions for increasing the sense of urgency include:

  • Eliminate organizational excesses-One of my clients once wanted to communicate the importance his company was placing on training as a means of improving performance to gain a competitive advantage. The employees got the message when the executive dining room was converted into classrooms.

  • Set higher standards-This means higher expectations for all levels of the organization in such areas as income, productivity, quality, customer satisfaction, product development, etc. At the same time increase personal accountability for results. The responsibility for improved performance is shared throughout the organization.

  • Increase management visibility-Spend more time in the trenches during difficult times to lend support (but don't disappear as soon as the crisis passes).

  • Increase feedback-When the situation is urgent, increase both the quantity and the quality of the feedback. When the frequency of feedback is increased, the employees begin to recognize improvement is a priority. Several of my clients have gone from weekly to daily performance updates during a crisis to communicate its significance.

An honest, justifiable sense of urgency can bring out the best of any organization. It can build self-esteem and increase the sense of esprit de corps. But using it as a gimmick for a short-term gain will always backfire in the end.

William Armstrong has been a management consultant for nearly 30 years. He is president of Armstrong/Associates and the author of Catalytic Management: Success by design (McGraw-Hill). He is a member of the Pennsylvania Speakers Association, a chapter of the National Speakers Association.