A Sense of Urgency | Being in a hurry to reach your goals

A Sense of Urgency

Summary of “A Sense of Urgency”: Kotter, a specialist in corporate change management, gives us all the tools we need to develop a “sense of urgency”, which is the key point to creating a company that can adapt to its time and turn a crisis into an opportunity.

Note: this article was written by Cédric Watine of Outils du Manager.

Book chronicle and summary of A Sense of Urgency :

The subject under consideration may appear narrow when compared to other books by Kotter such as Leading Change.

But he says that the lack of a “sense of urgency” is the factor that most often causes failure to change.

  1. No change can be initiated unless there is a genuine sense of urgency.
  2. Complacency (the opposite of self-doubt), is far more widespread than we think. Any success, even in the distant past, has a tendency to engender this feeling.
  3. The opposite of urgency is not only complacency; it is also a false sense of urgency. In other words, the energy motivated by rage, anxiety, fear, or frustration. This results in a kind of ineffectual frenzy. These are the people who run from meeting to meeting, producing piles of papers, going round in circles, and in the end, this prevents them from detecting new opportunities and distracts them from the real problems.
  4. his confusion between urgency and frenzy leads to consequences that are at least as severe as complacency: the teams and the companies do not deliver the requested results. Individuals are affected, sometimes severely.
  5. It is perfectly possible to transform this complacency or this frenzy into a real “sense of urgency”. There is a method and it is this method that is exposed in the book.
  6. The need for change within companies is no longer simply episodic but permanent. In the past, you had one big project at a time. Nowadays, changes are permanent and happen in several areas at once. In the past, a sense of urgency could be created from time to time. Nowadays, it must be part of the daily operation. IT BECOMES AN ASSET OF THE COMPANY.



In general, there is a huge gap between people on the ground, or at a hierarchical level which gives them access to the market realities, and others.

The sense of complacency is much more widespread than you realize. It is an “invisible” topic – we do not talk about it. People will tell you: “Yes, yes, I know that change is necessary”. What they are really thinking is: “I’m doing what it takes, I do my job well, this is how it has always been done”. They conscientiously do what they have always done: their list, their daily life, their meetings, etc.

They find it reassuring. But it prevents them from seeing the real opportunities and the actual threats.

They recognize that there are certainly important challenges to face, but in general, these challenges are for other departments, and do not concern them, the people who are doing their job the way they have always done their job.

In a world that evolves slowly, this is certainly a problem … In a rapidly changing world, it is a disaster on the horizon! And when thousands of jobs end up being lost when it becomes necessary to reduce staff by 30%, even though lifesaving actions could have been undertaken 10 years previously, these same people will not understand …


Managers often believe that they have solved the problem of complacency when they witness frenetic expenditure of energy. They hop from meeting to meeting, create increasingly complex PowerPoints presentations, endless lists of actions,

Pressure on the teams reaches a fever pitch. The boss shouts: “action” and everyone runs all over the place.

We destroy and we build nothing. We exhaust ourselves, without experiencing any sense of success. Without knowing that we are mastering change. This attitude cannot last, because the effort is not supported by this real “sense of urgency”.

A sense of urgency

A person who has a sense of urgency knows that immediate action is required in a critical area. “Immediate” means that there is progress on the subject every day, not waiting for it to appear on the schedule. “Critical” means that we are talking about a subject which places the survival of the business at stake, we are talking about success or failure.

A Sense of Urgency

This is neither some sort of blind optimism nor is it a state of constant paranoia. It is the proactive attitude that consists of permanently scanning the environment to detect both the potential threats but also, and more especially, the opportunities. The willingness to evolve and win – now.

It’s also the capacity to bring the right information to the right people at the right time and not in one month’s time, when it will be too late.

We often think that it is impossible to maintain this sense of urgency for long without it leading to “burnout”. This is false. Having a genuine sense of urgency is also choosing between what is important and what is not. Not letting yourself get snowed under by insignificant actions. Understanding your environment and knowing that you are acting in relation to it allows you to lower your stress levels.

This true sense of urgency is rare and its added value is vital in a world such as ours that is not frozen in time. Complacency is dangerous because it is invisible, even to intelligent, experienced people.

Frenzy is dangerous and insidious because it is often confused with productivity.

The norm

Complacency is the norm. Even in organizations devastated by a crisis, the attitude of “business as usual” often persists.

And even in organizations that know how to conduct a major change from time to time, you will often find an inability to integrate this sense of change as a real asset of the company.


To better understand the meaning of urgency, it is easier to understand its opposites: complacency and false urgency.


“Sense of self-satisfaction, especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies”.

This feeling is widespread around you.

Origin: complacency always comes from success or a sense of success and can survive for a very long time after the success.

Way of thinking: “It is sometimes difficult, but I do what has to be done. And when I cannot do everything, it is because the problem lies elsewhere (such-and-such a department, my boss, the competition which is not playing fair, etc.)”

Feelings: deep down inside, they are in favor of a status quo. Sometimes, they are also frightened in a totally irrational way by the personal consequences of change.

Behavior: do not seek out new opportunities, no awareness of new dangers, a focus on the internal rather than the external, slow pace, reproduction of the methods of the past.

It is difficult to identify people who are “complacent” because they appear to behave in a wise and rational manner. Every time that you bring forward something that demonstrates a new opportunity or threat, they will oppose you with selected information. They may be deeply offended by your behavior and ask what your hidden intentions may be.

False sense of urgency

Unlike complacency, a false sense of urgency generates energy and activity. Anxiety and rage can be strong generators of energy.

Look around you to see if the following exists:

Origin: failures or strong pressure to which a group is submitted.

Way of thinking: nothing is right, everything is a mess, the boss is putting us under too much pressure

Feelings: anxiety, anger, frustration, fatigue

Behavior: at this level, we can believe that a sense of true urgency exists because people are in general extremely busy. The difference is that instead of productivity, what we are looking at is frenzy. The objective becomes to either protect oneself or to attack others rather than to understand the situation, the market.

People acting under a false sense of urgency are often aggressive at meetings, preventing the thought process from running smoothly, and they can also become very angry should you bring up a fault. They are unaware of their situation, just like complacent people.

Look for clues!

Feelings can be invisible, but behavior is not.

Here are the clues that you can find:

  • critical subjects are delegated to consultants or to working groups involving a few key staff
  • people have difficulty scheduling meetings on key initiatives (“my diary is full”)
  • bureaucracy and politics slow down the important initiatives
  • meetings end without decisions on what must be done immediately (the only decision being to set up another meeting)
  • discussions are focused on internal issues and not on the markets, emerging technologies, competition, etc.
  • people spend hours preparing PowerPoint presentations on every single subject
  • people hurry from meeting to meeting, wearing themselves out and rarely focusing on critical threats or opportunities
  • well-chosen facts are used to oppose data that suggests a threat or an important opportunity
  • people regularly accuse others instead of taking their own share of responsibility and changing
  • passive opposition is used (“Oh, was that due today? Nobody told me …”)
  • past failures are not used for learning, but to kill the initiatives of today
  • people say: “Something must be done immediately!”, and they do nothing
  • cynical jokes kill any important discussion
  • specific actions about critical subjects are regularly late or carried out incorrectly


Our education, our training, and our senior management generally press us to bolster our files with long rational analyses before a decision can be taken. And in general, a document is created, with a budget and a detailed plan of action. We think that the more details we have, the better the plan’s chances of success.

It is true that any threat or opportunity must be analyzed and the plan of action rationalized. But this is not what propels a sense of true urgency. It is not what will move the project forward every day.

trust urgency

The weakness of this type of approach is that it only speaks to the brain, and not to the heart!

Aim for the heart!

In reality, the sense of true urgency is a set of feelings: unwavering determination to move forward and to win, immediately.

These feelings generate a set of behavior patterns that lead to success: put in place some fast actions that are focused on the critical subjects, launch new initiatives all the time, push to win new success despite the obstacles, try to move forward each and every day, constantly remove any low value-added activities from your diary.

But at their base, feelings are what give rise to this behavior and not simply facts or rational, well-formulated thoughts.

In leadership, the heart goes first.

The heart is what generates the sense of complacency or the frenzy, not the brain. All major accomplishments, all major changes were possible only because their leaders looked into their hearts rather than into their minds.

Experiences which speak best to the heart would appear to have 5 characteristics:

  1. They are painstakingly prepared to be experienced as human experiences. The focus is on the way to communicate (written form or not, timing, non-verbal signals…) as much as on the content
  2. They speak to all the senses, not only to the “ear”
  3. They are intended to stimulate a very precise emotion: trust, credibility, passion, conviction or a visible sense of true urgency.

Above all, they do not seek to transform complacency in the status quo into a sense of fear, frustration or panic, but on the contrary, to convert the fear into complacency!

  1. They are never or rarely explained. We don’t say: “I have prepared this document in such a way as to awaken a sense of true urgency inside you”!
  2. These experiences inevitably push us to raise our perception of things, to emotionally embrace new goals that will encourage us to leave the status quo. They call on what we want rather than what we have to do.

Kotter gives then 2 opposing examples of a presentation:

The first presenter darkens the room and makes a PowerPoint presentation that is full of data and tables. He looks at his notes 1/3 of the time, his slides 1/3 of the time, and devotes 1/3 of the time to looking at his audience without seeing its members. He articulates his sentences very well and follows the following plan: (1) the problem (2) the new goals to be reached and (3) the method to implement the strategy. Then, he takes questions for 30 minutes. The questions are often for clarification and never a cause for debate.

The second seems much more nervous. He puts down his notes and stands in the room, not on the podium. He starts with a joke by noticing that, like his audience, he is “in the dark”. Instead of climbing up to the podium, he asks for the lights to be turned on. He then talks for one hour and shows very few slides. He uses less than 10% of the volume of statistics used by the first presenter.

Half of his speech is made up of stories about his father, about information that he gained by having a drink with a competitor, about what the customers are saying, etc. He ends by talking about his wife who wonders whether it is not time for him to retire, to which he replied: “Yes, I am going to retire, but as a winner. And that is what we are going to do now – win …”

“Give people the important facts” vs “Win their hearts and minds”

Excellent, well-documented, and logical information will certainly convince people, but it will rarely be enough to deeply motivate them and speak to their hearts and feelings.

An experience that engages the heart, supported by facts, will win over both the heart and the mind and will sufficiently increase the sense of urgency.

We are now going to study 4 tactics to develop a sense of urgency

1) bring reality to the inside of groups which are too focused on the internal

  • Reconnect the internal reality with the external threats and opportunities.
  • Bring in data, testimonials, videos, sounds, or visitors that can speak to people’s hearts.

2) demonstrate a sense of urgency yourself, every day

  • Never act in a complacent, anxious, or angry manner
  • Demonstrate your own sense of true urgency, in a meeting, in a 1-on-1 setting, in memos and emails in a way that is visible to as many people as possible

3) seek the possibilities for development within the crises, but very selectively

Do not see a crisis simply as a threat, but as the opportunity to destabilize a structure that has become too stable.

  • Always find out whether a crisis can be a friend to help you to tear down complacency
  • Proceed with caution and without being naive, because a crisis can be fatal

4) confront people who always say “No-No”, but do it in an effective manner

  • Eliminate or neutralize the “urgency killers”, who are not skeptics, but are determined to cultivate complacency or, if necessary, to create destructive urgency

These tactics are in general a component of the natural strategy of great leaders.


This tactic is based on the fact that every organization has a tendency to focus on the internal.

Recognizing this problem of internal focus

In general, the steps are the following:

  1. historic success
  2. birth of a “we know how to do it” culture/increase in size which requires better internal organization/position of strength on the market compared to others
  3. internal focus which prevents seeing threats and opportunities
  4. a weak sense of urgency and a very stable, fixed organization
  5. even less motivation to seek external threats and opportunities

Listen to the employees who are in contact with the customers

This involves:

  • trusting these employees and assuming that they are sufficiently smart and motivated to be a good source of information
  • treating these employees on the basis of this finding, that is to say, treating them with respect
  • asking questions, listening carefully to the answers, and not giving up if the employees are not immediately on-board

Use the power of video

Kotter gives the case of a company that had a customer dissatisfied with its services record a video testimonial. This 15-minute video was far better at convincing the employees than a long speech about the necessity to change the production methods. Because the many employees who were exposed to this testimony were able to see the customer’s expression with their own eyes

Stop protecting people from worrying figures

We often resist sharing this type of information because (1) we think that people are not clever enough to understand (2) we are afraid that this kind of information does not show us in our best light (3) we are afraid that if this type of information is revealed to the outside world that share prices will fall (4) or lower morale, increase voluntary departures, or more generally, generate fear or anger

The solution can be found at the Management level:

  • Top management sees an opportunity and not just a problem (see how to make use of a crisis below)
  • Management clearly sees the objective (to kill complacency) and the error to be avoided (to generate anxiety)
  • They clearly express that this external data is intended to generate an action that aims to improve the organization
  • They clearly state that they will not tolerate any form of personal or non-constructive criticism
  • Top management expresses itself with confidence, without fear, without arrogance, without anger


Kotter cites the example of a company that posted all of its “outside world” on the walls of the waiting room: photos of customers, its products, its factories, competing products, recent articles, customer comments (both positive and negative), prototypes of upcoming new products… There were two tables: one showing the margins over the past 2 years (advantageous for the company), the other showing the stock exchange rate (less advantageous). There was even a photo of a competitor CEO, on which someone had drawn a mustache!

One person was in charge of maintaining this wall, but the employees were free to propose their own ideas.

Motivated employee

This is an example of information being organized in an attractive manner.

The idea here is to organize the information in an interesting way to avoid monotony and keep employees interested.

Go on a Visit

The idea is simple: send out some “scouts” who, on their return, will be in charge of bringing some new information from the outside world and new determination to do something with this information.

For example, send your IT person out with your sales rep.

The goal is to kill the “It’s not my problem” mentality so that everyone feels “in charge”.

Host visitors

Everybody does this, but not necessarily in an effective manner.

You should invite selected customers to your meetings.

Why not use a consultant whose sole mission is to bring in external information on a regular basis?

Why not use the human resources manager, who regularly holds interviews with former employees of competitors, as a source of external information?

Your suppliers should come in to tell you about other markets.

Bring in the information, but in the right way

This is the technique that is most often used to reduce the gap between the company and the outside world. It is also the one which is used in the least efficient way.

Many good methods exist and they are neither expensive nor time-consuming. A 20-year old trainee can find a considerable amount of data on the internet. You no longer need to call in a consultant to perform a satisfaction study because of the inexpensive software that is available on the market.

You really need to avoid issuing too much information or issuing it in an anarchical manner.

4 lines of inquiry:

  1. List your sources to be sure that you have enough information. This seems obvious. And yet, can you be certain that your employees are regularly kept informed of new products marketed by your competitors?
  2. Limit the volume of information so that it will be read. For example, one article per day, written by the press review department that can be read in 10 minutes.
  3. Avoid communicating an impression that is so neutral and uninteresting that it drops out of the memory as soon as it is read. Be interesting, surprising, dramatic (provoke an emotional experience).
  4. Distribute widely. Do not be influenced by concepts of policy, hierarchy, or status.

Imagine for a few moments an organization that would follow the following rules from top to bottom of its hierarchy:

  • send out scouts to the outside
  • invite people inside
  • provide information and present it in an attractive manner
  • listen to employees who are in contact with customers
  • create videos about the outside
  • widely share what can be learned rather than protecting others from news that they may find troubling
  • constantly change visual information

Imagine what would happen to complacency!

BE CAREFUL not to create a false sense of urgency!

You will not be able to avoid this happening from time to time.

Recourse to it can sometimes be voluntary. Sometimes we have to shock people to force them out of their destructive complacency. But this necessarily leads to negative feelings, at least initially. Our role in this case will be to transform these negative feelings into positive feelings.

Therefore, you need to be able to return things to their place by transforming this false sense of urgency (frenzy) into a true sense of urgency.

The key is to behave in a way that encourages this sense of urgency, demonstrating visible proof of determination, self-confidence, passion, competence, without blaming others… This is one of the 4 tactics developed in this book.


Our behavior, more than our speech, is what will create a sense of urgency in our teams. We are stimulating the state of mind that we are looking for within them when we are focused on the markets, the competition, if we talk to them about threats and opportunities in a positive way, if we maintain this positive tension within the teams.

The norm: “non-urgent” behavior

We are constantly sending out signals. Not just in a verbal and voluntary way, but also unintentionally, through our attitude, our tone, our choices, etc. However, these signals that we are sending out are generally not signals that encourage a sense of urgency.

Kotter gives the example of a hospital manager and compares him to an Indian manager.

The meeting starts late: bad signal. The coffee ritual would have been canceled by the Indian manager, or better still, there would have been a thermos flask on the table, with styrofoam cups.

There was no factual introduction at the beginning: it has not been clearly stated that the level of costs at the hospital is unacceptable. No reminder of what is obvious: that the consequence of these costs that are too high will be to kill off future projects to increase the quality of care, with a negative effect that is unacceptable to the doctors.

The norm: “non-urgent” behavior

A member of the Steering Committee interrupts the meeting and the director takes the phone call. He should have been called back after this IMPORTANT meeting ended. Another bad signal.

The president should have asked the team to prepare, before the meeting, a study into the costs generated by the slowness of his work. He should have demonstrated total determination to solve this cost problem for the good of the hospital, its patients, and its teams.

He should have ended the meeting, just as the Indian manager ended all his meetings, by clearly indicating what he and the teams were going to do over the next 7 days (7, not 47!). If this had been truly important, he would also have rearranged his diary to finish late if necessary. The president would have taken the opportunity to explain to each of the members of the team that he wanted to see them move or cancel all of their other commitments or appointments until this important work was carried out. He should only have interrupted the session once progress had actually been achieved.

The president would have then explained to those who were waiting in the waiting room why they had had to wait longer than expected and he would do this with a “sense of urgency”‘!

Make room for urgency!

Question: what is the worst enemy of urgency?

Answer: a diary that is over-filled

The Indian manager consistently removes any low value appointment from his diary. The space that has been freed allows him to focus on the essential and to achieve what is expected in a meeting, to speak more about what is crucial with his teams, about what is happening among their competitors and their customers, about the technological changes that are affecting his business. This attitude gives permission to his staff to delegate and to clear their agendas, even if this is not part of tradition.

Conversely, the hospital director allows his collaborators to delegate problems and responsibilities to him, overloading his diary even more. He is not shaking up the long-held tradition of meetings which serve next to no purpose, but continues to hold them out of habit.


  • The Indian manager is imprisoned by habits that allowed him to succeed in the past
  • he is pushed in the wrong direction by the company culture (also based on the past)
  • he is unprepared for the challenges of the 21st century
  • delegation in the wrong direction (from employees to him) has become deep-rooted behavior
  • Nobody dares to talk to him about the problem

Can he change? Yes, but it will be difficult and totally impossible unless he can clearly see the problem.

This is the basis of change: take a step back from your attitude and observe in your behavior what goes against the direction of urgency.

The story of the hospital would have driven the Indian manager crazy! And what about your behavior, what would he think of it?

Have a sense of ‘visible’ urgency!

Study people like the Indian manager: you will see what efforts they make to be ‘visible’. This flies in the face of widespread behavior today, which is to take refuge behind your desk or in the conference rooms.

Kotter takes the example of David, a production manager. He spends at least one hour per day in the factory and asks all his staff to do the same, including his chief accountant. The topics of conversation are sometimes about the children or sport, but more often, the talk is of productivity, safety, delivery, customers, or competition. No conflict, no lectures from the management, no hysteria. The message is clear: “We can’t let things slide. The only guarantee of employment, a wage increase and keeping a clean, attractive, and secure working environment is to move forward more quickly and better than the competition. And as the competition will not be sitting around doing nothing, this task is a real challenge. Yes, we have had some success and we are proud of that, but it offers us no guarantees about the future.”

Urgency is contagious

Urgency is crisis

One of the greatest threats in businesses today is deep-rooted cynicism often caused by the failures of many “new” managerial methods that have not proven their worth or the “fake enthusiasm” of management teams that are soon replaced.

Offering more accurate information about actual opportunities can help to resolve this problem. If it speaks to the heart and if it is genuine, it will better combat this negative sentiment. Eliminate those who say ‘No No…’: they are people who hate change and loving cynicism can also help (see later). Disarming honesty too: “let’s stop right now with all these cynical comments that aren’t getting us anywhere”.

But what will solve the problem most surely is a growing wave of people with a real sense of urgency, each day. One person, then two, then five, then ten…

Behavior turned towards urgency

  • Purge and delegate

Purge your over-booked diary

Get rid of low priority subjects

Cancel projects that are distracting you from the essential

Delegate, delegate, delegate

Do not allow your employees to delegate their topics to you.

  • Move forward quickly

Use the time that has been freed up to respond immediately to calls, to meeting requests and e-mails on the priority topics

Never end a meeting without clearly indicating who will be doing what quickly and when.

  • Speak with passion

Never stop talking about the need to behave in an ‘urgent’ manner: advance, adapt, and stay ahead of competition.

Speak to the heart

Make this contagious

  • Match words and deeds

Don’t just talk about the world outside, observe it constantly

Don’t just talk about new opportunities: truly take advantage of them

  • Make it visible!

Do all this in a manner that is as visible as possible in front of the greatest possible number

Let them see your sense of urgency

Urgent patience

Be careful not to fall into a parody of urgency by running around shouting “faster, faster”, creating too much stress for others, and finding yourself frustrated that nobody has completed all the objectives for the next day. People who suddenly understand the need for urgency sometimes fall into the trap of “false urgency”.

One of the major components of urgency is immediacy. And this can lead you to demand that everything be done by tomorrow. But some projects will require months to be completed.

This allows us to realize that it takes 5 years to reach an important and ambitious goal, all the while coming to work every day with the motivation to find every opportunity to keep moving towards this goal.


There are two ways to look at crises.

The most widespread one is to see crises as horrendous events, and this appears normal because crises can destroy organizations, injure people, derail the best-prepared plans… Everything in a business is done to minimize the probability of a crisis: budgets, financial audits, quality policy, legal protection, etc.

We can also have a completely different perspective, described by the metaphor: “A platform on fire” … In this case, the crisis is no longer an evil but can be viewed, under certain conditions, as necessary for success, in a world in constant evolution. Logically, the platform on fire can allow complacency to be seen as the real danger. When the fire invades the platform, everyone has to move, the status-quo is thrown out and a new start becomes possible.

Avoid and control crises, but beware…

There are two ways to avoid mishaps and crises: one, preferred by big companies, is formal and rigid: structures, processes, systems, and rules. The other, reserved for smaller or more recent companies, is informal and flexible: influence between people, the attention of the boss, and above the rest: corporate culture.

The problem is that these systems, especially the first one, kill the meaning of initiative or risk-taking and turn the attention inwards. In the event of a crisis, we immediately alert experts to “minimize the crisis”. Their expertise will be to (1) hide the crisis from the public to avoid generating a panic that will increase it (2) convince others that the crisis is under control (3) act to calm the situation at a minimum cost to the organization.

These systems of protection are sometimes indispensable to safeguard a company.

The problem is that they are often used to protect some people’s careers and not the reputation of their business. Worse, they sometimes eliminate the sense of urgency that would allow the company to prosper!

Use a crisis to create urgency, but beware…

People must immediately feel that potential opportunities can be found in this crisis.

Even if success is not guaranteed, there should be no sense of panic.

The challenge is always to be found in people’s hearts. They need to feel hope and not fear. You must act with passion, optimism, and resolution.

The action should be well-thought-out and concerted because extended anxiety becomes dangerous.

Kotter now tells the story of Irene, who is faced with the challenge of a drastic 20% cut in her staffing and operating budget, including her own. She tries to show that this is not the solution, but her boss maintains his position and refuses to negotiate.

In short, this is the process that she rolls out:

  1. unexpected crisis
  2. no reaction of panic or minimization of the effects
  3. prudent reflection on the way people are going to feel and then to act
  4. implementation of a plan based on this reflection
  5. no attempt to disguise the severity
  6. visible true urgency and conviction on her part
  7. a clear message about the fact that she and the others will handle this situation
  8. an increase in the sense of urgency in her department
  9. the emergence of new opportunities for action which we would have resisted under other circumstances
  10. a boss who observes this and is impressed

Two years later, most of the other departments are still fighting to operate with reduced budgets. Fear and anxiety continue to dominate … Not where Irene is.

Should we “create a crisis”?

Let us be clear: we do not actually create a crisis, but we can obtain leverage out of a latent and existing crisis.

For example, a new financial manager decided to make the accounts of a company more realistic. He included depreciation which had been avoided because the senior management did not want to project a bad image of the company. This immediately generated a loss that attracted everyone’s attention.

This charismatic financial manager knew how to transform this general astonishment into a genuine willingness to change and to improve the situation.

Another example: the one of the CEOs who let it be known that all the divisions in the company had to become first or second on their market and if this was not the case, they would be closed down. He was copying a strategy that has proven successful in some sectors. This meant that the bar was placed very high in all the divisions and some went on to improve greatly, but it spelled closure for many others. For these departments, the reason was often that they could not overcome their fears and their anger, and set objectives that they felt were impossible for the executives to reach… In the end, the closure of certain business lines and the favorable repositioning of others allowed the company to improve its stock exchange rate overall.

4 very dangerous errors

  1. believing that a crisis will automatically create a sense of urgency necessary to increase performance

For example: an article appears which highlights the company’s very poor performance. The owner is informed 2 weeks before publication, but instead of killing the story or issuing an internal warning, he chooses to do nothing. Instead of motivating people to change, the publication of the article petrified them because they were afraid to make things worse instead of better by making decisions in haste.

Without a plan, a crisis will worsen your situation

2. adopting a strategy of manipulation

For example: instead of continuing to fight against the arrogance of his factories, a leader chooses to no longer react when deadlines are not met and to accept all the excuses. His idea was to create the conditions for a major crisis and he succeeded! A new product took 10% of his company’s volume in the USA and nearly a third of its export sales. It was an unprecedented nosedive for the company. Unfortunately, all the energy became focussed on finding the person responsible for this major crisis – him.

3. passively wait until a crisis happens

Conditions are never all met at the same time to generate “the” crisis that you are waiting for that will allow you to change things.

4. underestimating the fact that a crisis may lead to disaster!

Example: a competitor took advantage of new technology to take dozens of major accounts from this company. This crisis could have been anticipated. But the management considered that only an unexpected crisis could drag people out of their comfort zone and complacency. Income slumped, along with their stock market share price, people were laid off, good employees went elsewhere. The company was finally taken over at a low price.

7. TACTIC 4: Managing the “No-Nos”

Kotter called one of the characters in his fable “Our Iceberg is Melting” No-No.

No No is the kind of person who refuses any new idea. It is in general the worst barrier to developing a sense of urgency. There is always one, and generally several.

The “No-No” problem

A “No-No” is more than a skeptic – he generally has 10 different reasons to explain that the situation is good, that the problems that are being pointed out do not really exist, or that above all, we should wait to have more information before acting.


We all have our fair share of skepticism inside us and this is healthy. Moreover, the early skeptics can go on to become the enthusiasts of tomorrow. “No-Nos” are different. They will do everything they can to discredit the agents of change and to sabotage their work. They are much more dangerous than we think. And this means that attempts to manage them are generally doomed to failure.

Typical phrases of a “No-No”:

  • we have always succeeded
  • can they guarantee their data 100%?
  • they’re scaring everyone and morale is going to collapse
  • they are no paying attention to the quarterly result
  • do they think we are doing our job badly or what?

There are two bad ways to manage a “No No”:

  • try to co-opt them
  • ignore them

Do not waste your time trying to co-opt a “No-No”

The first bad method is co-option. If you try to integrate the “No-No” into a change reflection group, s/he will sabotage it or will voluntarily slow it down.

Kotter gives the example of a firm of consultants that found that their flagship training course no longer seemed to attract as much interest as before.

During discussions, two groups were formed: one in favor of developing new courses and the other against it. The head then formed a committee, incorporating the leader of the group which was against change. His purpose was to get him interested. The latter sabotaged the committee by being constantly unavailable, criticizing the analyses and getting them reviewed, to such a point that the head considered firing him. His partner pointed out that this “No No” was working on the firm’s biggest case, with a satisfied customer and a project that was moving forward as expected. The committee would come to nothing and finally another firm would launch a new type of training course which will have a rate of growth of around 50%.

In general, when you co-opt a “No-No”, the following question will come up sooner or later: should s/he be excluded from the group or the company?

Never ignore a “No-No”

It is also not possible to neutralize a “No-No” by keeping him or her at a distance and ignoring them. A “No-No” will not remain inactive because s/he senses danger. They talk a lot.  Their language always contains arguments that could be true, such as “they are overdoing it”, “they are neglecting their real work,” “they are forcing us to take a risk”.

Avoiding direct confrontation, which precisely allows them to restore things, they like to act from the sidelines.

This can result in a mini civil war within the organization which will irrevocably ruin all your attempts to see the opportunities for change in the crisis. On the contrary, any ‘urgent’ momentum will be diverted to serve this internal warfare.

This is the error made by the crisis team created to adapt to the globalization which was facing the company. The first meetings seemed to go well, but the sense of urgency rapidly dissipated. Some investigations inside the team allowed them to discover the misdeeds of the Director of production all over the place.

Left out of the crisis team, he was involved in all the discussions about globalization, outside of the crisis meetings, artfully diverting the “sense of urgency”, never opposing decisions, but regularly postponing initiatives and demonstrating exaggerated caution.

Examples: “They’re right about this point, but …” followed by an argument intended to kill the true urgency of the situation. Or:  “No, no, the facts being given are fair, but they are not adapted to our situation”. Or: “This data must be put into perspective by comparing our current margins with those of Asia over a 5 year period…”, etc. etc.

There are three good ways to manage the “No-Nos“:

  • keep them busy with something else.
  • exclude them from the company.
  • expose their behavior in a way that allows the natural forces of the organization to neutralize them.

Keep them busy with something else

There are different ways to distract them. Set them to work on a subject or in a place where a sense of urgency is not required, put them in pairs with someone who understands that his or her mission is to prevent them from interfering, give them so much work that they do not have time to do anything else.

The “No-Nos” are not bad elements in themselves; in fact, this is what makes them dangerous. They are quite simply dangerous in a situation where a sense of urgency is required.

There is obviously no question of keeping a “No-No” busy on made-up missions or on non-existent problems, which would pose ethical questions and could be equated with manipulation.

Fire them

A “No-No” will not change (or very rarely), despite everything that s/he may tell you when you threaten to dismiss them, on the grounds of differences in company strategy.

“No-Nos” put your entire organization in danger. If the exclusion of the “No-No” is carried out in a respectful manner (“you are putting the business in danger, you have to leave”), then there is no ethical problem. It is the difficult choice that sometimes has to be made between dismissing a person or letting dozens of jobs become endangered.

Many find this solution risky and uncomfortable and therefore they do not study it properly. This is a mistake.

Silence them through social pressure

The last strategy is to put the “No-No” in the public limelight of and let social pressure do the rest.

Kotter cites the example of a company in which the senior management had actually read his book “Our Iceberg is Melting” to the employees, and held discussion sessions about it. An assistant went to the supermarket to buy a penguin on which she put a signboard stating “our ‘No No’ is called: _____________”. When she returned from her lunch break, she discovered that someone had written in the name of one of the managers. When the other employees passed the sign they laughed and joked. The manager in question had no other choice than to laugh at it too.

This was all done with good humor and in a good spirit, but it was also a real warning addressed to these two managers.

Of course, this type of measure must be carried out with caution and in an ethical and measured manner.

Be careful not to confuse them with skeptics who can be won over using evidence. We are talking about people who are determined to prevent change, people who will not listen to any arguments.


The sense of urgency must be constantly recreated.

In fact, the sense of urgency creates success, and that creates complacency!!!

Even short term, “inevitable” success when a true sense of urgency has led to facing the challenges, can leave you losing sight of a more long-term goal. Some will draw a new impetus for further progress and lead to further successes, but others will let their motivation slide because they feel that the time has come to take a break, or to be satisfied with the current situation …

The tools to be used are described in this book. Bring the outside inside, demonstrate the sense of urgency, manage the “No Nos”, see if a crisis can be put to good use, etc.

The only difference is that it must take into account what has already been done: inviting customers to annual meetings may no longer have the same effect…

Keep the principles, vary the tools.

Perhaps the first time, you did not take care of the “No-Nos”. This may be the opportunity to finally handle them.

Use the tactics that you had forgotten.

A success story about continuity

“When we started, everyone in the company was motivated by change because everyone knew that we were heading straight for the wall.

We explored our strengths and weaknesses in every area, we implemented the necessary measures, the necessary indicators. I had no problem explaining to people what had to change.

We succeeded, we become the leaders. Each time we rated ourselves against our competitors, we were the best by far.

People began say ‘but we are already first’ or worse ‘why doesn’t the boss let it go?’

So, we started looking at things from the point of view of the shareholder. In other words, no longer by comparing with our direct competitors, but by comparing ourselves with any other company, in any sector, because that is how the shareholder compares.

And this told another story … we were no longer the best!

That is when a lot of interesting things begin to happen: people started to wonder what would happen if the shareholders went looking elsewhere… They began to look at what was happening elsewhere, to tell themselves that we could indeed do better…

Of course, some might say “we can’t compare, it’s a different trade”.

To succeed, bearing down on people and telling them that they have to do better is not enough anymore – they won’t believe you. Neither is earning more money. There must be something real, something that they can see and that will make them say: ‘we are not the best, we have to do better, I want to do better'”

Integrate this to the company culture

The ultimate solution is of course to integrate the sense of urgency into company culture.

In fact, it is necessary because we are in a world in which change is more episodic, but continuous.

To create/change a culture, you have to act on behavior, using all the available tools of management:

  • Who is promoted and why?
  • What are the salaries indexed on?
  • What is the organizational chart?

It is much more effective than compelling an entire system to adapt to a temporary crisis in a manner that will be harmful in the long term. And that is how the businesses of tomorrow operate.


The future will make the ideas developed in this book clearer. Things are accelerating, although at different speeds depending on the markets… Those who feel good in the status quo are in a position that is increasingly under threat. And often the fear and the anger are not directed towards the real threats.

By taking your time, you could implement dozens of ideas taken from this book. Don’t do it.

Identify 2-3 ideas that will be easy to put in place and do it right away.

Start now!

Rather than trying to revolutionize your business, or develop an entire project, start tomorrow, at a meeting with the question: “Is our way of doing things preventing us from _____________?”

Look for information – about your markets, your competitors, other products, the Internet. Ask yourself how to broadcast this information, and to whom…

By doing this, by changing your behavior to adopt the “sense of urgency”, you create new skills, which you will find to be very useful in the years to come.


Considered to be the world’s foremost authority on leadership and change. In 2001, BusinessWeek magazine considered this author the number one “leadership guru” in the USA.

He has published 16 books, including 12 bestsellers, and 6 of them have won awards. Among others: Leading Change, Our Iceberg is Melting.

Book critique of A Sense of Urgency :

Kotter is a recognized authority in the USA in the field of change management and leadership. You can tell.

The examples (and I have of course not mentioned all of them) exude business reality.

The style is both concise and engaging and redundancies are quite rare for an American book.

Each of the arguments is also accompanied by specific ideas on how to implement the idea being developed. This makes you want to give it a try.

Of course, we may be somewhat shocked by some of the comments or methods recommended.

The description of the “No Nos” could lead to fears of a witch hunt or harassment. We would like to see as much criticism of the followers of unproductive frenzy or of the manipulators of fake crises!

On the contrary, Kotter seems to suggest that a crisis can be “generated” to get people to react. Hmm…

These tools need therefore careful handling using ethics and discernment.

But what we must remember is just how well Kotter manages to present the crises as positive opportunities.

He allows us to definitively find the right balance between blind optimism and dangerous and destructive paranoia.

He advocates for what I believe to be most important for business management: positive realism.

Finally, this book can be salutary for future entrepreneurs that are tempted by the idea by a business managed on automatic pilot … without evolving, in a world which never ceases to change!

Oh yes, “if you’re not going forward, you’re going backwards”. And … I love Timothy Ferris

Cédric Watine

Outils du Manager


  • Clear
  • Backed-up
  • Motivating
  • “Do-able”
  • Genuinely allows you to see crises as opportunities

Weak points:

  • The occasional repetition
  • A few ideas that are ethically questionable or dangerous

My rating: image image imageimageimageimageimageimageimage

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