The words sense of urgency have a bad rap. They are often used as a managerial mumble-jumble by incompetent managers who don’t know how to lead people properly. However, it certainly has its place in our lives as it is a necessary trigger for change. Without a true sense of urgency, there is little incentive for organizations and individuals to get out of their comfort zones and change.
Urgency has its opposite, complacency. It is a state where we are so comfortable with the status quo that we willingly refuse to see and hear anything that contradicts our belief that things are just fine. We are convinced of the superiority of our accomplishments. Nothing can disturb or destroy what we built.
When combined with a lack of awareness, complacency makes us unable and unwilling to adapt to the ever-changing world. It is often a product of success. By being successful once, we feel we can easily repeat that success. We lose focus, give things less effort, stop sensing the urgency, and we get complacent. We are comfortable with the status quo.
A false sense of urgency
Then, there is a devious little sibling of a true sense of urgency, a false sense of urgency. A false sense of urgency is often a product of failure. We failed or are failing, and feel we need to do something, anything. If the organization has a false sense of urgency, it is driven by anxiety, frustration, and anger. A false sense of urgency doesn’t lead to focus on what is important but rather on generating a lot of activity without really moving in the right direction to get things done. We recognize the danger of complacency. We know that something needs to be done. So we generate a lot of activity, unfortunately, often without beneficial results that would mitigate the coming danger.
What’s worse, a false sense of urgency often leads back to complacency. After all this frantic activity, we are so exhausted that we feel we need to slow down. All the activities we had done didn’t bring the expected results, so we may as well stop. We become complacent with the mindset that nothing we do matters anyway.
Complacency can’t be solved by a false sense of urgency. It just generates activity that everyone knows is useless. We do things just for the sake of doing something. Complacency can be cured only by a true sense of urgency.
A true sense of urgency
A true or real sense of urgency emerges when we see a real problem and try to find an effective and efficient way to solve it. Our urgent behavior is not driven by fear or feeling that the world is in chaos. It is driven by a belief that there is an opportunity to solve the problem, to make the world a better place, and all we need to do is grab it. A real sense of urgency is a very focused and positive force. When we have a real sense of urgency, we are determined, focused, and alert to the opportunities to get things done and win.
Compared to complacency and a false sense of urgency prevalent in organizations, a real sense of urgency is relatively rare. And yet, as John Kotter notes, any significant change starts with someone feeling a real sense of urgency. It is the trigger that gets things moving.
How do you find whether you have a complacent culture? Answer some of these questions adapted from John Kotter’s work.
How do you find whether you have a culture with a false sense of urgency?
To create a real sense of urgency, you need both hearts and minds of people. You win minds by giving the team enough data, so they understand the context and the “why” something is urgent. However, to spring into action, people need more than just a logical explanation. They need to be emotionally invested. John Kotter talks about four tactics for connecting people’s hearts and minds and creating a sense of urgency.
Bring the outside in – connect the internal reality and the external opportunities or threats by connecting it with emotionally compelling data and stories. Listen to your front-line employees who often have the most exposure to the world and are emotionally close to the customers and partners. Bring their stories to the rest of the organization. Don’t be afraid to give people even troubling data. There is no need to shield your team from reality. You hired adults, so treat them like ones.
Behave with urgency every day – don’t fall into complacency or a false sense of urgency. Always act with urgency but in a calm, purposeful manner. Show your own purposeful drive to others, lead by example. Don’t dwell on the past. Learn from your mistakes, respond fast, and move on. Don’t get stuck in over-analysis. Get the minimum of the necessary data, decide and move on. Don’t ignore others. Everything you do is being observed by your team and considered as acceptable behavior. If you never respond to emails, always spend two hours at lunch, don’t pay attention to meetings, or don’t show up at work at all, you are sending clear signals of what is the norm. Don’t let your calendar to be cluttered with irrelevant meetings and activities. Focus on what is important and pursue it with determination. You need to have enough time in your day available to help those who rely on you with their critical issues, so no one gets blocked on what truly matters. Get rid of low priority tasks and projects. Never allow meetings to end without clarity and clear next steps and owners. Bring passion into your work. Others need to see that you care. Live the urgency and focus on productivity rather than on busyness.
Find opportunity in crises – every cloud has a silver lining. Keep looking for opportunities even in the middle of a crisis. When a crisis erupts, we usually switch to damage control mode. We often act with a false sense of urgency. We focus on making sure our careers and the team’s reputation is intact, rather than on using it as an opportunity to do things better in the future. Kotter talks about four mistakes people usually make in times of crisis. First, they assume that the crisis will automatically create a real sense of urgency, and therefore people will perform better. Second, they often create a strategy to deal with the crisis that is manipulative and creates a backlash. Third, people often see that something needs to change, but instead of taking action, they are waiting for some crisis to develop a sense of urgency for them, and this crisis may never come. Four, underestimate that crisis can bring a disaster, so even though it can bring opportunities, one can’t ignore the real dangers crises represent.
Deal with the NoNos – don’t ignore urgency killers. In every team, there are people who will resist any change, who will remain complacent and skeptical about everything. Consider the difference between a skeptic and a real NoNo. A skeptic is someone who never really dealt with a particular issue and is not convinced that the selected way forward is the correct one. Skeptics can be convinced with data and enough information. They can slow things down, but refining the message for them will help to think things through. Eventually, you can win them over. NoNo is someone who doesn’t want to change at all, regardless of reasons or data. NoNos will never be satisfied with any explanations and will actively work against the change. They can be incredibly destructive, and there is a little point in wasting time and effort on trying to win them over. There are only three ways to deal with NoNos. Remove them from the team, distract them with opportunities and problems they can effectively solve, or create social pressure, so they realize that others see and disapprove of their destructive behavior.
Putting it all together
Every change begins with a true sense of urgency. Only by waking up to the problems we face, realizing the opportunities in front of us, and believing we can make a difference, we can change the world.
However, urgency doesn’t mean fear, chaos, and stress. If you experience these, you have a false sense of urgency. A true sense of urgency brings order, purpose, motivation, and drive. It even allows for the necessary rest and recharging your batteries.
Don’t let short-term success distract you from a sense of urgency. It is too easy to fall back into complacency when you start seeing some first positive outcomes of change. Learn to behave with purposeful urgency every single day. By keeping the urgency up, you keep the success coming.
What is your take on the topic? Do you believe that sense or urgency is important? Are there situations when it can hurt? How do you create a sense of urgency in your life?
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