How do you create a sense of urgency without scaring people?

Navigating constant change is the not-so-new normal in organisations.

Political, economic, competitive even environmental pressures mean always doing more with less, responding to opportunities or avoiding threats. Despite the importance of implementing change successfully, leading change expert Dr. John Kotter has found that 70% of all major change efforts in organizations fail. Organisations throw huge resources at change initiatives only to have the momentum peter out. Too often, the gains simply never materialize.

In helping my current organisation communicate change I’m using Kotter’s 8-step model* and Roger D’Aprix’ Communicating for Change as my guideposts. Both outline the critical need to create a sense of urgency.  In fact, it’s the first step in Kotter’s model.

Here’s the crux of my current conundrum: How do you a) convince leaders to b) create a sense of urgency without c) scaring people?

D’Aprix quotes an HBR interview with Lawrence A. Bossidy, former CEO of Allied Signals.  Bossidy subscribes to the “burning platform theory of change.”

“When the roustabouts are standing on the offshore oil rig and the foreman yells, “Jump into the water,” not only won’t they jump but they also won’t feel too kindly toward the foreman. There may be sharks in the water. They’ll jump only when they themselves see the flames shooting up from the platform… The leader’s job is to help everyone see that the platform is burning, whether the flames are apparent or not. The process of change begins when people decide to take the flames seriously and manage by fact, and that means a brutal understanding of reality. You need to find out what the reality is so that you know what needs changing.”

D’Aprix urges corporate communicators and leaders to establish a sense of urgency that is grounded in the marketplace, in competition, in customer demands so that even if employees, shareholders, customers or other stakeholders don’t like change initiatives at least they understand why they are required.

The paradox is that, while it is the first and essential step to successful change, leaders may resist candor, transparency and giving people the straight goods. They may fear that stating the challenges in stark terms to create a sense of urgency will alarm their audience. They may fear that admitting there’s a monster under the bed or stiff competition makes them look weak or out of control. They underestimate  the intelligence of their audience and the value of plain language. They fail to appreciate that others also see complexity and will not fault them for making difficult choices or bold moves in that environment.

I’m a PR girl at heart so it’s a given that positioning and timing are important. I understand that there are stock market, media, employee engagement or political concerns but we should heed Kotter’s advice:

By far the biggest mistake people make when trying to change organizations is to plunge ahead without establishing a high enough sense of urgency in fellow managers and employees. This error is fatal because transformations always fail to achieve their objectives when complacency levels are high” (Kotter, 2012, p.4).

Saying nothing until all the “i”s are dotted and the “t”s are crossed (and they never are in fluid situations), may seem tempting or safer. But in the absence of information, people will speculate. You’ll still have to contain the market, political or media concerns but with less control over timing and content. You won’t get the extra effort needed to implement change. D’Aprix’ advice is to be constantly communicating openly about market pressures. That way, stakeholders understand the organisational context.

When convincing hesitant leaders to create a sense of urgency you can:

  • Provide data and proven models (Shockingly, they don’t always take your word for it!)
  • Encourage leaders to build trust by being transparent about the challenges they face and the choices they are making.
  • Help them outline the vision that guides the actions required. People may be alarmed by the urgency but comforted to know that a plan is in place.

When you get approvals to proceed:

  • Ground the need for change in your political, economic or competitive environment.
  • Avoid euphemisms or sugar-coating facts. As Kotter puts it “Stop senior management happy talk” (p.46)
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Use as much face-to-face communication as possible and keep managers up to date.

Have you faced a similar conundrum? What worked for you?

John Kotter Leading Change* If you read this blog regularly, you know I like to cite my sources. I like to use approaches that are grounded in research rather than chase the latest tweet (although I read those too). When it comes to my professional work and my blog posts, I try to stand on the shoulders of giants or at least hang around their necks in a crazy piggy-backing attempt. Kotter’s Harvard Business Review article Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail published in 1995 is among the most reprinted HBR articles. His book Leading Change was named on of the 25 most influential business books by Time magazine.


Published by Dominique O'Rourke

Public Affairs professional, City Councillor, MA Leadership graduate, problem solver and lifelong learner.

One thought on “How do you create a sense of urgency without scaring people?

  1. Great article, Dominique! It also helps to convince change supporters that the status quo will hurt them more than any impacts of the change otherwise the combination of inertia and not knowing “what’s in it for me?” could outweigh the long term benefits of supporting the change.

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