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A Sense of Urgency - Book Cover

1 February 2010
Dr. Moria Levy
book cover

This book, "A Sense of Urgency," is part of a series authored by leadership and change expert John P. Kotter, alongside works such as "Leading Change," "The Heart of Change," and "Our Iceberg is Melting." It gained recognition as a New York Times Bestseller.

For those familiar with Kotter's framework, he outlines eight stages of change management:

  1. Creating a sense of urgency to address the issue.

  2. Building an action team.

  3. Formulating a vision and strategy for change.

  4. Communicating change and the need for it; obtaining people's consent.

  5. Empowering others to act.

  6. Creating initial successes.

  7. Persevering through objections to change (often encountered at this stage).

  8. Establishing a new culture with the implemented change is an integral part.

According to Kotter, the most challenging aspect of managing change, based on his interviews with various organizations, is initiating the first step: creating a sense of urgency among the organization's personnel. The book focuses on this crucial stage.

The book delves into the following topics:
  • Barriers that hinder urgency:

    • Complacency

    • False urgency

  • Tools that foster urgency:

    • Appealing to the heart

    • Bringing in external perspectives

    • Daily reinforcement

    • Viewing crises as opportunities

    • Handling objections with care for dissenting voices

In conclusion, the book provides practical tips and examples, ensuring an accessible and insightful read. This summary captures the essence of its content. Enjoy your reading!

Barriers that hinder urgency:


Complacency is not merely a perception but a profoundly ingrained sentiment within an organization. It often stems from past successes and can persist long after those achievements become unattainable. Individuals exhibiting complacency are typically unaware of their situation, content with the existing status quo, and occasionally resistant to change, suppressing any inclination towards it. How can you identify complacent individuals?

  • They display no interest in exploring new opportunities.

  • Their focus is primarily on internal organizational matters, neglecting external developments.

  • Their pace of work is sluggish, even when faster progress is achievable.

  • Initiating or leading actions is not a common trait.

  • They firmly believe that what worked well in the past is suitable for the future.

Red Flags:

  • Meetings are frequently postponed to evade addressing change.

  • Meetings yield no tangible results, and decisions are consistently deferred to subsequent sessions.

  • "Selected" facts are repeatedly used to dismiss information and forgo seizing opportunities.

  • Cynicism prevails in the atmosphere instead of engaging in meaningful discourse.

  • Tasks related to critical issues are often delayed and fail to conclude within stipulated timeframes.

False urgency

A false sense of urgency is characterized by a superficial urgency that, upon analysis, leads to no positive outcomes, solely focusing on creating the illusion of urgency. It manifests in individuals who discuss urgency but are unwilling to participate actively in action and change. The origins of false urgency are often traced back to past failures or external pressures imposed on the group. Like complacency, individuals experiencing false urgency are often unaware of their situation, sensing pressure without a clear understanding of its origin. Those with a false sense of urgency may exhibit signs of anxiety, anger, frustration, and exhaustion. How can you identify individuals with false urgency?

While distinguishing them from those genuinely driven to change is challenging, consider the following indicators:

  • Observable activity that seems unproductive.

  • A sense of hysteria or frenetic behavior.

  • A defensive or attacking posture rather than a problem-solving approach.

  • Excessive running, meetings, talking, defensiveness, and leaving work exhausted.

Red Flags:

  • Delegating the responsibility for change to consultants or internal groups with minimal involvement of key personnel.

  • Lack of sincere efforts to streamline bureaucratic processes and address organizational political issues.

  • Internal focus without consideration for markets, competition, new technologies, etc.

  • Numerous presentations with limited substantive content.

  • People rushed from one meeting to another, visibly exhausted.

  • A prevalence of anger in the atmosphere.

  • A tendency to blame others without taking personal responsibility.

  • Discussions about past failures without leveraging them as tools for learning and future improvement.

  • Verbal calls for immediate action without corresponding follow-through.

Tools that foster urgency:

Appealing to the heart

Not surprisingly, the most effective strategy for instilling a sense of urgency in an organization is to evoke an emotional response. This is not suggested as a substitute for appealing to people's intellects but as a complementary approach. A case study or narrative with logical elements that initially tug at the emotional heartstrings can open people's hearts, making them more receptive to rational arguments. Successful appeal-to-heart tactics share the following characteristics:

  1. Drawing from Personal Experiences: Instead of relying on numbers, ideas, or data, the emphasis is on connecting with people through their experiences.

  2. Engaging All the Senses: It goes beyond merely appealing to the sense of hearing, striving to convey sensations in all their dimensions.

  3. Emotional Stories with a Message of Possibility: The narratives aren't solely emotional; they carry a powerful message that positive action and change are achievable this time despite past failures.

  4. Omitting Explanations: These stories don't drown in lengthy explanations; instead, they vividly paint a picture.

  5. Inspiring Insights and Future Goals: Experiences inevitably lead individuals to gain insights and contemplate goals beyond the existing status quo.

Bringing in external perspectives

Introducing external perspectives into the organization is a tactic that fosters a sense of urgency within it. Successful organizations often maintain an inward focus, concentrating on internal matters rather than monitoring external developments. This inclination is driven by factors such as a culture of "we know best," the need for internal coordination following past successes, and a solid competitive position that fosters complacency about external factors.

The suggested tactic involves bringing the "outside" into the organization and breaking down the walls that limit awareness. Various methods can be employed for effective implementation:

  • Placing significant emphasis on frontline personnel who directly engage with the market and customers, using them as conduits to bring in external information.

  • Incorporating videos that showcase stories and cases from outside the organization.

  • Facilitating discussions within the organization with customers or other external stakeholders.

  • Incorporating data from external sources, even if it challenges the organization's convenience.

  • Assigning individuals to spend time in the field, external environments, and academia for substantial periods.

  • Widely sharing insights gained from external exposure.

  • Displaying pictures in the organization representing the external world, not solely focusing on internal aspects.

It is crucial to exercise caution to avoid creating a false sense of urgency rather than addressing genuine urgency in practice.

Daily reinforcement

If a sense of urgency is to be instilled, it cannot be a one-time occurrence. The "Every Day" tactic serves as a continuous effort to create urgency:

  • Mentioning it at every meeting.

  • Scheduling frequent meetings to promote change in close succession (and without encountering repeated rejections).

  • Making decisions at the end of meetings.

  • Concluding meetings with a statement outlining the planned actions for the next seven days.

  • Ensuring visibility by communicating urgency across the entire organization, not just specific individuals.

  • Speaking passionately about the imperative need for change.

  • Ensuring consistency between words and actions.

  • Initiating a process of erosion to spread the sense of urgency to more individuals.

Additional considerations include:

  • Canceling meetings with numerous participants contributes to calendar delays and hinders progress in implementing change.

  • Eliminating tasks with low priority to free up resources for pushing change initiatives.

  • Scrapping projects that impede the progress of change and divert attention from it.

  • Decentralizing authority to empower others, facilitating persistence and advancement in promoting change.

Viewing crises as opportunities

Another proposed tactic for fostering an understanding of urgency involves leveraging organizational crises as opportunities to drive change. Utilizing a crisis as an opportunity appeals not only to the intellect but also to the emotions. Sometimes, individuals may even intentionally create minor crises to generate opportunities. However, caution is advised when employing this tactic:

  • If the crisis is tied to another department, it may be perceived as an accusatory finger highlighting the situation rather than serving as a tool for change.

  • A crisis doesn't inherently instigate a sense of urgency; deliberate direction is needed.

  • There is a risk of a crisis generating a false sense of urgency without actual substantive action. Ensure proper alignment towards the desired change.

  • Deliberate creation of a crisis may be exposed and backfire, potentially spiraling out of control.

  • It's important to acknowledge that people fear crises and may actively avoid or deny them, hindering the ability to capitalize on the opportunity.

Simultaneously, avoiding the opposite extreme is crucial—relying solely on this tactic and passively waiting for a crisis to occur. When a situation arises, it's imperative to view it as an opportunity and not wait for individuals to recognize it alone.

Handling objections with care for dissenting voices

In every organization, some individuals resist change, impeding the creation of the necessary sense of urgency to initiate the process. Additionally, we may harbor a few individuals predisposed to oppose change, which is a natural inclination. The suggested tactic is to address those for whom resistance is more than occasional, as highlighted by Kotter, who deems decisive action necessary. Two commonly ineffective approaches are:

  1. Inclusion of Opposers: Involving those who oppose change in the change-driving process can lead to delays and internal sabotage, ultimately jeopardizing the change initiative.

  2. Ignoring Them: While convenient, ignoring resistant individuals doesn't solve the underlying issue.

Proposed tools to manage opposition:

  1. Diverting Focus: Engage resistant individuals in other projects or activities that consume their time, making it challenging for them to resist change actively.

  2. Removal from the Organization: In extreme cases, individuals posing significant resistance may need to be separated from the organization.

  3. Public Recognition: Expose resistant individuals to the organization as "no" people, fostering a neutralizing attitude among the rest of the workforce. Identifying these individuals in advance is a crucial preliminary step, though it appears to be a manageable challenge.

In conclusion, here are several vital tips distilled from the book:

  1. Sustaining Urgency Over Time: Maintaining a sense of urgency is challenging yet crucial. Organizations need to integrate the urgency for change into their culture successfully. One effective measure is shifting the urgency focus across different dimensions (from customers to competitors, shareholders, etc.).

  2. Avoiding Linear Approaches: Instead of acting in isolation, it is recommended to identify simple tactics at each stage and initiate them. Avoid waiting for the perfect alignment of resources or an "appropriate" time—start immediately. Success will attract resources.

  3. Immediate Action Without Waiting for Resources: Do not wait for ideal conditions or sufficient resources. Commence action promptly, and success will attract the resources needed over time.

  4. Prioritizing Quality Over Quantity: Prioritize a concise but practical set of strategies rather than creating extensive lists of potential tactics. Quality and effectiveness should take precedence over sheer quantity.

  5. Adapting and Moving Forward: If a tactic proves ineffective, it is advisable to refrain from persisting. Acknowledge that each tactic is a tool; if one doesn't work, adapt, choose the next tactic, and continue the work. Natasha must actively select the following steps and persevere in pursuing change.

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