John Kotter: A Sense of Urgency Drives Change

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Leading Change" by John P. Kotter. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is step 1 in John Kotter’s 8-step model? Why is it important do develop a sense of urgency when initiating change in a company?

In his book Leading Change, John Kotter says a sense of urgency is a crucial first step to change because nothing will change if your employees don’t feel it is necessary. Complacency is the first hurdle you must get over if you want to initiate change.

Here is John Kotter’s step 1 in his 8-step model for change.

Develop a Sense of Urgency 

According to leadership and change expert John Kotter, a sense of urgency is the first step along the road to any successful organizational transformation―an understanding that change is desirable, necessary, and a matter of survival. Developing a sense of urgency is critical. Nothing will change in your company if people feel that transformation is unnecessary, pointless, or wasteful.  

(Shortform note: In High Performance Habits, Brendon Burchard offers advice on how to spark a sense of urgency—he recommends establishing hard deadlines that have meaningful consequences if they’re not met. Hard deadlines focus people’s minds on what needs to be done, and thus help high-performing organizations and individuals prioritize their time-sensitive tasks.)

No Urgency, No Action

Kotter argues that complacency is the first hurdle any change leader needs to overcome. In a complacent environment, people are in denial about the company’s underlying problems and the urgent need for reform.

Similarly, people in a stagnant corporate culture tend to argue that any problems must be someone else’s fault or that the problems are so deep and entrenched that they’re not worth trying to solve. In an organization with an ingrained lack of urgency, it will be impossible to effect any meaningful change.

(Shortform note: Complacency often arises from past success. When goals are being met, it’s easy to think that nothing needs to change. But this attitude can lull your organization to sleep and blind you to the ways your competition is growing and innovating. One of the riskiest moves an organization can make is to assume that the environment around them won’t change. Some ways for leaders to help cut down on organizational complacency include: 1) clearly communicating business priorities and objectives, 2) publicly praising and rewarding strong performers, and 3) encouraging open debate and discussion of the change strategy.)

“No Immediate Crisis” Doesn’t Mean “No Underlying Problem”

Often, Kotter writes, the lack of a major crisis in an organization allows people to delude themselves that everything is fine. But this can be a dangerous delusion. Just because things might appear stable and functional on the surface doesn’t mean there aren’t serious underlying problems. Kotter argues that many people in leadership find it psychologically comforting to be able to point to the lack of an immediate crisis as a rationale for why nothing needs to change. 

Unfortunately, according to Kotter, many organizations are so rooted in complacency and so deferential to the traditional way of doing things that they wait until there is a major crisis to initiate change—and it’s often too late by then.

Complacency and Global Warming

Kotter writes that complacent organizations tend to engage in outright denial of the problem, assertions that problems are too complex and ingrained to be worth tackling, and blame-shifting. While he’s writing primarily about attitudes within business organizations, there’s another subject where his insights about complacent attitudes and behaviors apply quite well—climate change. Indeed, many experts have pointed to the global warming crisis as a perfect storm of human complacency, with potentially devastating consequences for humanity. 

The nature of climate change tends to foster the same complacent attitudes and behaviors that Kotter highlights in his analysis of organizational failure. While climate change is a truly existential problem, it also can’t be detected by most human beings on a day-to-day basis (leading to outright denial) and would require an unprecedented level of international cooperation and mutual sacrifice to address (leading to claims that it’s too complex and ingrained to solve). Moreover, because the carbon dioxide emissions that have created the problem have been created by nearly every country in the world, it’s all too easy for Country A to blame Country B for the crisis and argue that it shouldn’t have to do anything to reduce its own emissions if Country B refuses to follow suit (in other words, blame-shifting). These factors together tend to produce inaction and complacency rather than action and urgency.

Lead By Example

Often, one of the most effective things leaders can do to break through complacency is to lead by example in public, visible ways—such as by eliminating certain perks, luxuries, and privileges typically reserved for executives.

For example, the CEO at a company facing a worsening financial situation that calls out for structural reform can help kickstart the process and convey the urgency of the moment by announcing that she is taking a salary cut, or that executive lunches will be eliminated, or that the private corporate jet will be sold. Even if symbolic, these kinds of moves can carry great weight with people at the company and show that leadership is prepared to make sacrifices.

This shows that people across the organization are not being asked to do anything that leaders aren’t willing to do.

Leading by Example During Covid-19

It’s important for leaders to model the kind of behavior and attitudes they want to see within their organizations, because a leader’s style is always going to be emulated—whether she wishes it to be or not. Former Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly argues that corporate leaders should direct their organizations with a sense of purpose and humanity—ideals that he argues were put to the test during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

While the pandemic represented an unprecedented challenge, it also presented a unique opportunity for companies that professed to put their employees and customers first to actually prove those commitments. Joly points to clear communication with workers about safety protocols, facilitating remote work, developing flexible work policies, and offering paid time-off for employees with children affected by school closures as ways in which many companies led by example during the crisis. He also argues that many companies made sacrifices by eliminating executive perks and reducing non-salary expenses in an effort to avoid or minimize layoffs.
John Kotter: A Sense of Urgency Drives Change

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Here's what you'll find in our full Leading Change summary :

  • Why successful firms are those that can implement long-term change
  • A breakdown of the key steps for leading successful organizational change
  • Why change must be led by a team, not by a visionary individual

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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