AKF Partners

Abbott, Keeven & Fisher PartnersPartners In Hyper Growth

Complacency Kills Scalability – A Review of Kotter's "A Sense of Urgency"

We recently read John Kotter’s “A Sense of Urgency”.  Professor Kotter, of the Harvard Business School, is often thought of as one of the premier authorities on change and has written books such as Leading Change and The Heart of Change.

The book is an easy read and we highly recommend it.  In it Kotter argues that all companies need to have a sense of urgency to succeed in today’s world of continuous change.  Without urgency, companies are doomed and unfortunately most companies do not act urgently.   Instead, they act with the equally insidious enemies of urgency: complacency and false urgency.

Complacency has its roots in past success and is very pervasive.   People feel confident and content that they know what they need to do. Change comes seldom, even while the business needs change rapidly.   False urgency is equally pervasive and is mistakenly taken for a true sense of urgency.   False Urgency springs from recent failures and problems, focusing on short-term results even in the light of long term declines.   Anxiousness, anger and frustration coupled with frenetic activity netting little benefit are all characteristics of False urgency.  False urgency is often mistaken for urgency.

Urgency is rare and critically important.  It springs from great leadership and the recognition that opportunities and hazards abound.  The focus is on winning and in purging the company of all unnecessary activities.   Whereas false urgency is deflating, urgency can be rejuvenating.

In our experience, there are few places where complacency is more to blame than in the failure to scale your product.  You are successful and growing.   Things are going well and you are profitable or well on your path.   The press says great things about you and investors are flocking to your door.   Complacency abounds.   Why would you do anything other than you were doing yesterday? Get ready for failure!

Then when you fail, you look to just fix the current issues.   False urgency sets in and people rush about creating spreadsheets, presentations and meetings occur hourly.  But where is the simultaneous focus on long term needs?   Who is focusing on making the crisis a future success?   How are you ensuring that the processes you need are in place to keep you from having future failures?   Whom do you have looking at all the other limitations within your architecture?   Without the right focus, you will return to complacency and start a cycle of scale related failures that will bring your company to its knees.

Your only answer is to set a real sense of urgency.   The strategy, as Kotter recommends it, is to win over the minds and the hearts of your team and company to the scalability initiatives.   Explain why scale is important in a way that speaks to their hearts; make it about the customer!

Tactically, Kotter recommends four steps:

1) Bring the outside in: Focus externally.  What are other companies doing to solve their scale problems?   Get expert help where you need it.

2) Behave with urgency.  We take this to mean “set the example”.  Discuss scale every day and ask scale related questions.

3) Find opportunity in crises.   As we discuss in our soon to be released, a crisis is a chance for you to make your company better!

4) Deal with No-Nos.  These are the people who say “we’ve tried that before” or “that won’t work here”.   See our article entitled “Seed, Feed and Weed to Succeed”.   You can’t afford to have folks diluting your culture and sowing the seeds of complacency.


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