Balancing urgency, overdrive

Filed under: Contributed Columns | Tags:,

As a leader, you know that change is critical to your organization’s success. But resistance, confusion and inertia may be slowing your change efforts. To counteract inertia, leaders need to instill a sense of urgency. According to Harvard professor and change expert John Kotter, urgency is a sense of pressing importance. Kotter writes, “A real sense of urgency is a highly positive and highly focused force.”

Unfortunately, many leaders unwittingly overdo their attempts to instill a sense of urgency and end up creating a climate where speed matters more than quality and where decisions are rushed. In May 2010, Forum Corp. released the book, “Strategic Speed.” The authors found that many change efforts fail because leaders act too quickly and with so much urgency that they end up neglecting the very factors that are essential to success.

The challenge for leaders, therefore, is finding the right balance between urgency and overdrive.

Overdrive is caused by overuse of the “get it done” leadership style. It occurs when leaders put extreme pressure on their people to get things done faster and with fewer resources. Overdrive causes leaders to miss or ignore key problems; to skip the critical communication and engagement phases of initiatives; and to plow over resistance, ultimately causing individual and company performance to suffer.

So how do you create a sense of urgency without pushing your organization into overdrive? Several new books and articles on this topic have hit the market recently. In summary, all of the research indicates that you’ve got to slow down in order to speed up.

In an April 2010 Harvard Business Review article, Heike Bruch and Jochen Menges wrote about a phenomenon called “The Acceleration Trap.” They argued that “when leaders neglect to call a halt to periods of furious activity, employees feel imprisoned by the debilitating frenzy.”

Another April 2010 article appeared in the MIT Sloan Management Review and was titled, “Learning When to Stop Momentum.” Authors Michelle Barton and Kathleen Sutcliffe, both from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, studied the connections between teams that fight wildfires and business teams. They found that groups in both situations often fall victim to “dysfunctional momentum,” which occurs when people continue to work toward an original goal without pausing to recalibrate or re-examine their processes, even in the face of cues that suggest they should change course.

Finally, in a May 2010 Harvard Business Review article, “Need Speed? Slow Down,” Jocelyn R. Davis and Tom Atkinson of Forum Corp., highlighted the differences between strategically slow companies and the more successful strategically fast companies. Among their findings:

In strategically slow companies, groups move on to new projects without taking time to debrief, whereas in strategically fast companies, groups make it a point to capture and communicate lessons learned.

In strategically slow companies, time is rarely made for training and education, whereas in strategically fast companies, even experienced employees receive training when initiatives are launched.

In strategically slow companies, people work at cross-purposes due to competing objectives, whereas in strategically fast companies, objectives and systems are aligned.

What about your own firm? Do you suffer from a lack of urgency? Or is it time to slow down strategically in order to speed up?

Kotter provides many specific guidelines for upping urgency in his book, “A Sense of Urgency.” Some suggestions include staying focused on no more than one to three specific and clear goals. In addition, communicate the importance of the goals every day. Ask what progress is being made, reward progress and proactively investigate problems, listen, and address barriers.

To avoid overdrive, have explicit conversations with your people about the speed with which you and they are operating. One technique that works well is to draw a long, horizontal line on a whiteboard. Label the far left with the word “complacency.” Label a middle/right point with the word “urgency” and the far right with the word “overdrive.” Invite people to place a dot or an X where they feel the team or organization is. Talk openly about the results.

Paying attention to the balance between urgency and overdrive will help you and your team and/or organization operate in a productive and positive state of energized alignment.

Mack is a Woodland Park-based consultant, speaker, and author who specializes in leading and communicating change. She can be reached at