We all need “A Sense of Urgency,” according to John Kotter. I was alerted to his new book by that title in David Zinger’s employee engagement blog. According to Kotter, what looks like urgency in most organizations is not true urgency. Employees might be very busy, have full work schedules filled with meetings, and feel overloaded, but this doesn’t mean that they are achieving important outcomes that will make the organization successful. Kotter argues that in the current business environment of rapid change and increasing competition in all sectors, employees at all levels in an organization must be determined to do something every day to make that organization successful. In his manifesto, It All Starts With A Sense of Urgency, Kotter wrote:

True urgency is not the product of historical successes or current failures but the result of people, up and down the hierarchy, who provide the leadership needed to create and re create this increasingly important asset…A real sense of urgency is rare, much rarer than most people seem to think. Yet it is invaluable in a world that will not stand still. Complacency is pervasive, in part because it simply is not seen, even by many smart, experienced, and sophisticated people. A false sense of urgency is pervasive and insidious because people mistake activity for productivity.

I agree with Kotter that complacency (See my blog post about the “complacency syndrome.”) and a false sense of urgency are huge problems from the C-suite to the front-line workers in every organization. The current crisis in Lehman Brothers is a perfect example. The signs were obvious from the beginning of 2007, if not before, and yet it appears that it was business as usual for this leader among financial institutions, once the envy of the banking industry. They had grown complacent. And now the company is on the brink of being merged, sold, forced into bankruptcy, or bailed out by U.S. citizens. The Lehman situation makes the point clearly that urgency, as Kotter defines it, should be a national concern as well as an individual company concern.

Creating a “sense of urgency” requires a change in corporate culture. Kotter talks about “bringing the outside in”, which, for him, means getting data about opportunities and hazards and communicating that information to all levels of the organization. I think that companies often do not have to go “outside” for this information. Employees have the information; the problem is that they are afraid to tell the truth, or they only have a piece of the puzzle and someone else has to put all of the pieces together, or they don’t have the communication channels to get the information to people who can make the change that is needed.

We need to create cultures in organizations in which people feel safe in sharing what they know about opportunities and hazards and have the mechanisms to do so. Top leadership must set the tone for this and all managers must encourage an open and honest exchange of information at every level and among all departments. This will contribute greatly to creating a sense of urgency; to employees doing something important every day that helps the organization learn and change and achieve success.