Change Management – Step 1: Creating a Sense of Urgency

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Jim Rohn, author and entrepreneur, stated that “without a sense of urgency, desire loses its value.” Urgency, by definition, is “importance requiring swift action.” Dr. John Kotter, Harvard Business School professor and entrepreneur, created the change management process (CMP) used by professionals, consultants, and entrepreneurs around the world.

The first step of the process is to establish a sense of urgency. The purpose of this post is to discuss what, why, and how to create urgency in change management.

What Does It Mean to Create a Sense of Urgency in Change Management?

A sense of urgency is the action required to present the need for change. Proposed change can be one of the harder changes.

By nature, people do not like change, especially change that removes them from their comfort zones, disrupts their habits, or threatens to make obsolete something that they have done or built. If the idea of something new feels threatening, people will tend to resist rather than buy into the need for change. 

Creating a sense of urgency is simply identifying that the current system, product, service, or whatever needs to change is no longer the best option. As such, leaders must establish urgency to stop such action. To create urgency in change management also requires identification and acknowledgment of respect for the efforts that made the current situation. 

Change can cause a perception of a threat, and threatening what people have done or built is not a good way to create buy-in for the new change. In that case, it reinforces resistance. So, urgency must be balanced with identification, acknowledgment, and a particular action. Furthermore, the proposed change must be communicated so that it exhibits the urgency of implementation sooner rather than later.

Why Creating Urgency in Change Management Is Necessary

Businesswoman looks at her watch while urgently checking her schedule on a laptop computer.

Creating a sense of urgency is paramount to change management. The perception of urgent change leads the way of establishing the vision for change. If there is no urgency to change, there will be complacency toward any proposed change. 

Complacency is simply a state in which there is not enough pain or desire for greater success. As such, people remain doing what they do without the desire to change. By definition, complacency is a state of “self-satisfaction especially when unaccompanied by the unawareness of dangers or deficiencies.” Moreover, it’s a prime example of why change typically doesn’t work. Being unable to break down the proposal for change initiatives and provide valid reasons for such change leaves the audience feeling reluctant about change. 

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When there is no case to justify that by not changing that a greater amount of harm would occur, change will not happen. Urgency helps to establish the justification and need to act. 

Establishing urgency has to happen to illustrate what occurs by doing nothing or doing something. The gap between the two in an organization typically showcases the urgency factor.

The Role of Honest Communication

Leaders who want to create urgency in change management need to have transparent and honest discussions with staff about the consequences of continuing along the same trajectory versus the benefits of changing. 

Honesty is key. 

If employees detect that the leadership’s claims lack authenticity, they’ll grow skeptical. People will tend to be more uncooperative and unwilling to accept they have to deal with the upheaval. 

Understanding the Importance of Change

The need for change, of course, is inevitable and often beyond our control. The impetus for change can come from a variety of sources, including the following:

Initiatives to alter course also come from new and existing leaders who recognize the need to tackle internal problems such as…

…or even just closing an underused cafeteria

A prime mover of change in recent years is new technology, which has transformed how we do business, communicate with each other, market products, and handle financial transactions and investments. Then there’s the COVID-19 pandemic that has transformed the way we do business even further, spurring the growth of e-commerce, door-to-door delivery, and virtual meetings.

Simply put, businesses must adapt to survive and thrive.

Examples of Iconic Brands That Failed to Adapt

History is littered with examples of companies that failed to change their business models and were forced to close or restructure through bankruptcy, losing their market dominance. 

Here are three iconic brands that failed to be ready for change…. 

  1. Blockbuster: While Blockbuster was a market leader in the movie rental market, the company failed to adjust its business model to respond to new competition from on-demand streaming services, namely Netflix. Whether it was complacency or a lack of a sense of urgency, the company ceased operations in September 2010.  
  1. Blackberry: With its handy tactile mini keyboard, Blackberry was the leading smartphone for business users but failed to see the need to respond to touch screen technology. While Blackberry is still in business, its market share plummeted from 20% of the global cell phone market to less than 1% by 2017 and has flatlined ever since.  The company responded too late to reinstate its relevance in the smartphone market. It went from a manufacturer to primarily a brand producing software and outsourcing its smartphone production to other companies.  
  1. Sears: Sears was once the pioneer of selling through mail-order catalogs and became the largest retailer in America until the end of the 1990s. But with increased competition from big-box stores like Walmart and Target and unsuccessful attempts to diversify, it began to lose market ground. Then as Amazon took the business from traditional stores, it was slow to adapt to a new online business model and became unprofitable in 2010. The company declared bankruptcy in 2018 and announced it would continue with 223 Sears stores, a fraction of more than 3,500 it owned at its peak. Forbes reported in January that it estimates fewer than 100 Sears stores remain operational.
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How to Create a Sense of Urgency in Change Management

Dr. John Kotter proposes four tactics for establishing urgency: bring the outside in, remain committed to change, find the opportunity in crisis, and deal with no-nos.

  1. Bring the outside in.

The first tactic to bring the outside in is relatively straightforward (in theory). Management connects the internal situation with external opportunities and challenges through imperative data, people, sources, etc. 

Without a concerted effort, organizations can easily become too internally focused and oblivious to changes going on around them. Leaders may find they have to challenge the inward thinking of managers and employees. 

Kotter recommends that leaders should make managers and employees aware of…

  1. Remain committed to change.

The second tactic is remaining committed to change. Doing so helps create and maintain a proactive, flexible, and solutions-driven organization. Keeping that momentum also helps to guard against a culture of complacency and prevent people from slipping into a false sense of security. 

  1. Find the opportunity in crisis.

The third tactic is to find the opportunity in crisis. When an emergency arises, management can use that opportunity to learn, act, and grow. 

A crisis that challenges people’s comfortable position will naturally create a sense of urgency. While leaders have to maintain a level of morale, stave off panic, and prevent crises from harming a company’s profitability, unexpected events can provide opportunities for creative thinking and action. 

  1. Deal with no-nos.
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The fourth tactic is to deal with the no-nos. Dealing with no-nos refers to enforcing the requirements of change and holding people accountable.

Although staff should feel free to express grievances at the beginning of the change process, allowing negative attitudes to fester will only obstruct change. Leaders can’t afford to let the company become an echo chamber for naysayers who are focused only on reasons why a new opportunity might fail. To deal with this, Kotter recommends actively challenging these attitudes, holding people accountable, and enforcing the requirements of change. 

Takeaway

Establishing a sense of urgency is the first step of the change management process. Urgency creates the picture behind the need for change. Moreover, it moves behavior from complacency to action. 

Urgency can be established using different tactics; however, Dr. John Kotter recommends the following: 

  1. Bringing the outside in
  2. Behaving with urgency every day
  3. Finding the opportunity in crisis
  4. Dealing with no-nos 

Effectively communicating urgency will help establish the justification, shake off complacency, reduce resistance, and prove the need to act. It will show the contrasting outcomes between taking action and doing nothing. That’s why you need to create urgency in change management.

Think about how you can establish a sense of urgency to get your firm, clients, and vendors ready for change. 

Stay tuned for the next post that builds upon urgency and can help you understand the what, why, and how of building a guiding coalition.

 


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Filed Under: Analytics

About Katie Carpen, PhD, Thought Leader

Katie has 14+ years of experience in higher education, consulting, recruitment, and mortgage finance industries. Her areas of specialty include change management, conflict management, corporate social responsibility, emotional intelligence, leadership, organizational culture, strategy, and work-life-balance. Katie has served as a relationship manager, associate dean, consultant, subject matter expert, and coach. She is currently active in higher education, coaching, and various causes. She enjoys fostering critical, creative, and strategic thinking by applying concepts across a variety of domains.