Who hasn’t experienced it? You receive an e-mail that is either marked as urgent or in a personal conversation; a topic gave the predicate “urgent”. “You know, it would be very urgent that…”.

But what is “real” urgency?

After years of consulting and management experience, John P. Kotter concludes to unite the willingness, sense, and actual action in the term “urgency” and use it to sum up, what in his eyes and his experience has made will make many companies successful.

He even goes so far as to say that organisations lacking this quality will not be successful in the long run. He also names the two biggest enemies: complacency and blind actionist. The awareness that development is ongoing, even more so in our often quoted fast-moving times, is a first step towards the urgency to meet it.

The danger of complacency is as omnipresent as development. Often, complacency glossed over with hectic activities that do not contribute to the company’s success but look or feel important. The resulting hectic pace and the time lost in the process are not conducive to achieving goals. Quite the opposite because Kotter defines real urgency as follows:

“Urgency means it is necessary to deal with a matter of the highest priority at short notice.” [1]

For this desirable essential value of an organisation (here we are talking about individuals as well as groups or teams), Kotter names a specific process that can divide into three phases with eight steps:

(1 to 3) first creating a climate for change

(4-6) the activation and involvement of all stakeholders and also those who have not felt like stakeholders so far

(7-8) Permanently consolidate the change that has made or the goal that has achieved.

According to Kotter’s notion of urgency, this model cannot be considered static either; it starts where urgency threatens to stop.

  1. Urgency must awaken, nurtured, and developed. While complacency comes naturally, the speed has worked out. Declining urgency sets in overtime. The solution is obvious: this development must count by urgency. According to the motto “Save in time, and you shall have in time of need”, this event, which is sure to occur, must be prepared. Conveying the conviction that urgency is also appropriate can sometimes be a stumbling block, as fears, reluctance, and complacency can act as “restraining forces”.
  2. The composition of a leadership team should also lead through difficult and controversial times. As in his book “The Penguin Principle”, Kotter calls refuseniks “NoNos” – who have to be gotten rid of either by distraction or by leaving.
  3. Strategies and objectives should develop and present or demonstrate how those involved are emotionally picked up and fully identify with the task and the goal. Practical visions are imaginable, desirable, feasible, focused, flexible and easy to communicate.
  4. Identification with the strategies just mentioned is only possible through continuous communication. This phase is often underestimated because it is very time-consuming and requires one to repeat what has already been said or supposedly conveyed. However, if this phase works in detail, the actors recognise their role and participate actively.
  5. All team members must give sufficient freedom of action to be able to remove obstacles. Difficulties revealed here were not recognised before but only became visible through the actual participation of the actors. Thus, it is necessary to eliminate structural deficiencies and those of individual capabilities in different interventions. Kotter sees bad bosses who prevent necessary change as particularly dangerous.
  6. Visible successes must show and celebrated right at the beginning in order not to lose sight of the motivation and the goal because
  7. Complacency usually sets in quite quickly and must not be allowed to occur because of the first successes.
  8. In the end, changes must anchor in the culture. Behavioural changes will be the most noticeable, as these will lead to the actual achievement of goals. New teams can form, or individual actors can leave the company.

J. P. Kotter sees three steps sees as relevant:

  • See: One must point out the development problem with the most significant effort and extreme clarity.
  • Feel: Emotions can attract staff’s attention and motivate them to bring the project to a conclusion.
  • Change: This will eventually lead to changes in behaviour, which will thus solve the problem.

With the danger of complacency always in mind, Kotter observes that many organisations give up, either because of successes celebrated too early or because the goal is lost sight.

If, on the other hand, it is possible to get all those involved on board, awaken a sense of urgency in them, and promote it, the actual goal will be consistently pursued and achieved.


[1] Kotter, J. (2009): The Principle of Urgency. Acting quickly and consistently in management. S.20.