Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Urgency - Not Panic - to Move the Business Forward

Inc.'s September 2009 issue has a well-timed article for my current work environment in the financial industry, especially given the economic climate. It's an interview with John Kotter, the author of "A Sense of Urgency", and his thoughts on why urgency, not panic, is the key to moving your business forward.

Currently I find my work environment chanting a mantra of "doing more with less", and emphasizing the need for increasing our speed of delivery. All the while with all the noise and pressing demands, on a team by team basis, there is little focus on what matters most to the organization on the whole. Kotter's points out that in many organizations there are a lot of signs of false urgency. Your teams are working long hours and are just plain exhausted. "Frenetic activity," he calls it. That word accurately depicted some of the scenes I've been witnessing lately.

How do you distinguish between good and bad urgency? Well Kotter suggests one way of spotting the bad. Ask how hard is it for someone to schedule a meeting on your calendar? If it isn't easy, it means that you aren't leaving enough white space on your calendars to leave room for the important stuff that is going to happen and needs to be dealt with immediately. The unintended fallacy that people tend to believe is that during urgent times you need to take on more and demonstrate your value by being busy. Otherwise risk losing your position. Instead, Kotter insists we should be looking at our calendars and removing anything and everything that isn't moving our business forward.

This point resonates with me, and illustrates the value of being focused on what matters most. All too often I find the business is trying to please all of their constituencies at the same time with resources working at over their capacity. By doing so they're settling for mediocrity in their delivery and ultimately failing. Following Kotter's thinking, focus both your efforts and resources on the initiatives that meet the bottom line. And either delay the delivery to those other constituents, or completely abandon those efforts if they do not bring the value needed to meet the demands dictated by your organization's urgency.

To get there you need impassioned leaders. Leaders need to set the direction to get to the place where the entire organization is truly focused and seizes on the opportunity presented by urgent situations. Nothing will be gained by merely announcing urgency with lackluster and stoic rallying calls.

At the end of the article the topic of a leader's role in times of urgency is addressed. Kotter is notably quoted in saying, "True urgent leadership doesn't drain people. It does the opposite. It energizes them. It makes them feel excited. And the idea isn't so much that the leader is always showing emotion as that he's trying to produce the right emotions in the people he leads. But again, he has to model it. You can get people to respond rationally to a problem, but if you haven't stirred their hearts and minds, once the immediate crisis has passed, you lose them. The sense of urgency dissipates."

I think I'll be checking out Kotter's book on my Kindle in the coming weeks.

Click here to check out the Kotter interview on Inc.com.

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