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A Sense of Urgency in Business Takes the Sense of Fear Out of Change


Change confronted becomes the power to create a brighter future. Change avoided becomes the power to destroy the future.

If there is one thing that is certain in business, it’s that the rate of change is not going to slow down anytime soon. In fact, change is likely to speed up, despite the fact that many managers either don’t notice or fail to recognize it. Worse, many recognize the need for change only when it is thrust upon them in a most unwelcome way: shifting consumer tastes, remarkable new technologies, stiff new competition, falling revenues, just to name a few.

When challenges such as these arise, these managers respond by resisting new courses, new strategies. Change makes them uncomfortable, since it forces them from bureaucratic comfort zones and their desire to keep on doing things the same old way. The trouble is, if we are focused inward on the way things were, it is difficult to comprehend the significance of a changing business landscape.

Think of change this way. You’re driving down the highway while simultaneously trying to “text” a friend or decipher a smartphone map. (and who hasn’t foolishly at least tried that). We quickly scan the traffic around us, and then, using that cerebral snapshot, we look away—just for an instant. The next thing we experience are visions of bright lights; angels and specters of dead relatives hover as we float to our next existence. So much for paying attention.

On the other hand, we drive down the freeway keeping ever alert for the clues to important changes in traffic flow ahead (e.g., a Christmas tree of brake-lights), we can take the immediate action that prepares us for the changed conditions ahead. And that’s a big difference.

Business Managers Must Constantly Look Ahead

Granted, changes in business rarely crash into our consciousness the way traffic on the freeway does, but the finality of the outcome can be much the same: If we don’t recognize a change in traffic flow and respond with a sense of urgency, our very future may be about to end. If we don’t recognize and respond to business changes with a profound sense of urgency, then our career or our company may be just as dead.

What is important here is to understand that change is not the problem. Consumer tastes, radical new technologies and the like are the rule of business, not the exception. The problem is the failure to recognize and respond to change with a sense of urgency. This failure to recognize the significance of change and respond to it urgently is what makes it so threatening and frightening.

That why savvy business leaders don’t avoid change; they embrace it. They are constantly on the alert for even seemingly insignificant change. They learn to recognize in its embryonic stages and approach that reality with a renewed sense of creative accommodation. The result? Their fear of change is reduced to manageable and actionable proportions and the change is viewed as the opportunity for which it is.

When Companies Fail to Drive Forward in the Face of Change

People are often perplexed when they see a company with an outstanding culture, a great record of growth and success, suddenly begin to spurt, then sputter and stutter like a car running out of gas. Of course, cars have gas gauges to let drivers know when they are running low on gas. And of course, motorists pay attention to their gas gauges since no gas, no forward movement.

But where’s the “gas gauge” for business? There seems to be no such warning signal for companies. Or is there?

My contention is that every company does have an accurate gauge that will warn anyone who wants to notice, that the company is running low on gas for its culture, which of course is what drives the company to recognize and respond to change.

The gas that fuels the culture of an organization is a high-octane sense of urgency, which is forever alert to changes in their business environment. Operating with a sense of urgency is the measure of an organization’s leadership and vitality. A sense of urgency does not mean frantic activity born of frustration or anger. Instead, it means all tasks, decisions and actions are tackled in a consistent, timely fashion, exhibiting neither delay nor panic. It is this cultural sense of urgency that powers the company to be successful in the traffic of competition today and to prepare it for the oncoming changes.

Such urgency is not, however, without its enemies. Chief among these is bureaucracy, that stultifying goo that fertilizes indecision and delay that subsequently leads to a harvest of inaction or last minute, panicky actions. As a result, a corporate leader who accepts or foments bureaucracy as a tool for control and consistency rarely recognizes or understands the importance of a sense of urgency in confronting change. And a culture without a sense of urgency is on the road to failure.

When a company is vibrant and growing it is usually because a leader has instilled a sense of urgency in the culture. The leader understands that the best antidote for bureaucracy is a consistent attitude of getting things done. Once this sense of urgency is lost, there is little fuel to drive the company forward or confront the changes in the road ahead.

Too Big to be Nimble?

There is a general belief that the idea of a sense of urgency works only in smaller ventures, but that is wrong. Whether or not an organization operates with a sense of urgency is not determined by the size of the organization, but by the quality of its leadership. Organizations led by entrepreneurial leaders habitually operate with a sense of urgency, but that does not mean that even the biggest of organizations can’t have that attitude. In fact, such a sense of urgency of action is even more important in times of rapid change.

The challenge for the leader, of course, is to focus on and drive a sense of urgency throughout the organization, motivating each and every employee. That’s the difference between having a sense of urgency and shooting from the hip. Having a sense of urgency does not mean that you are not organized and does not mean that you are not planning. Nor does it mean that you are managing off-the-cuff without adequate preparation. It means that you have a sense of determination to get things done.

The strong leader understands that in order to instill or retain a sense of urgency in the organization, that singular actions just won’t cut it. Success requires a variety of exploits. People need (and want) to be held accountable for the results that they achieve-both good and bad. Priorities need to be clear, consistent, achievable, and staunchly supported. Deadlines must be set-held to and met. And those charged with responsibility must be given authority, held accountable, and rewarded for success. So long as the leader operates with this philosophy, the organization will remain gassed up and ready to not only respond to change but to even drive it and roll into the future.

And the Moral of the Story …

If you observe a company where the culture is more defensive than aggressive; where decisions are made by a few and slow to come by, then you are looking at a company that has lost its sense of urgency and its ability to recognize and respond to change.

Even worse, if you work in an organization that shows clear signs of having lost this sense of urgency or is running on fumes, then prepare yourself for the difficult times brought on by unrequited change, because the best of times are in your rear-view mirror. Business success isn’t based on your ability to simply change. It is, as business pundit Mark Sanborn suggests, based on your ability to change faster than your competition, customers and business.