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John Kotter on A Sense of Urgency

Lesson created by Terri Elton using

Video from Harvard Business Review YouTube Channel

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John Kotter, Harvard Business School professor and author of A Sense of Urgency, says, "Without a true sense of urgency, any change effort is doomed." And creating urgency is the first step in his 8-step  Process of Leading Change.

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Additional Resources for you to Explore
John Kotter researched over 100 companies that were undertaking cultural change and discovered 8 common mistakes. Out of those mistakes he developed a 8-step process of leading change. Creating a sense of urgency is the first step in an 8-step process.  For more on these steps, read this rbs article.

Without urgency, deep, adaptive change is unlikely to happen. According to Kotter, the work of this stage is to: "craft and use a significant opportunity as a means for exciting people to sign up to change their organization." (For more on this stage see an Interview with John Kotter.) 

Think about your own life for a moment. When have you had a sense of urgency move you to change? Did this change involve others? How did you draw them into the process of change?

Now think of an organization or societal urgency that moved you to change. What centered the group? How did you move this change process forward?

Urgency creates the motivation and becomes the driver of adaptive change in an organization. Think about it. Without a compelling, internally motivated reason, change doesn't happen, at least change that transforms and last. Kotter's urgency is similar to Lewin's first stage of change - unfreezing. Lewin points out that this stage moves people into a transition period, a time marked with uncertainty and fear because it means letting go of what was known. This is scary. Hence, the process is not linear, or once you move forward there's no going back. In fact, we, as humans might agree with the change process, intellectually, and we willing to move forward. But at some point we might get tired, or frustrated, and want to return back to old ways. The "draw back" to the old way is very strong. Without a sense of urgency, at the beginning and continuing through the transition process, change will not happen and the organizational system will not change.

And urgency is multi-faceted. Urgency is about an attitude. Does the urgency capture my spirit or attitude? Urgency is a way of thinking or framing how we see life or work or organization. Does the urgency help me reframe or rethink the change you are asking for? Urgency is about behavior and how we act, everyday and in the ordinary parts of life.  Does the urgency call me to new behaviors? Urgency is a feeling or connects to our emotions. Does the urgency capture people emotionally? And urgency sees potential and helps us believe in a future different then the present. Does the urgency begin to help others see a new future?


Leading change is a process.
Creating a sense of urgency is critical to launch or ignite such a process.
Urgency must capture people emotionally, behaviorally, intellectually, and organizationally.
Leading change does not happen in a linear manner.

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