Modernization and Adopting Change

Establish Urgency and Defrost the Status Quo

Posted by Chris Barlow on May 6, 2019 3:16:53 PM

Stage 1 of the 8-Stage Process of Transformation

Establish a Sense of Urgency

Part of our Series on Leading & Adopting Change

Many significant transformation efforts fail in part or entirely, and the Government modernization initiative is no exception. While Agencies who set out to modernize usually manage to upgrade legacy software and/or move from on-premise servers to the cloud, true transformation often falls short.

Successful Modernization - Establish Urgency

Updates in technology (the area where most Agencies are succeeding) is only the most obvious part of modernization. True modernization encompasses more than much-needed technology updates, including objectives like:

  • Growing the Agency’s framework to expect and adapt to faster and faster changes
  • Building trust with and delegating more tasks to expert Government and Civil partners
  • Integrating AI/ machine learning into technology to improve outcomes and efficiency

True modernization requires change in the entire culture of an Agency to succeed.

A significant, consistent factor in why transformation efforts fail is that a sense of urgency is not generated and sustained to the end. Without urgency, an organization will instead be full of complacency:

  • Teams in charge of the transformation will fail to form
  • The transformation will lack supporters and/or will be resisted
  • Any momentum that does form will die out before change is deeply anchored in the organization

The default position for people in any organization is to remain where they feel safe, comfortable, and competent. Big transformational changes will shake up all three of these feelings, especially for those who actively support the initiative. For this reason, employees in an Agency who don’t buy into a transformation effort will find ways to withhold cooperation, or even to actively resist the effort altogether.

Another word for this attitude or position is complacency—a key obstacle in every transformation effort. Therefore, leaders who want to begin a long-lasting transformation effort must first discover the sources of complacency in their organization.


Common Sources of Complacency

  1. No highly visible crisis exists
  2. Corporate excess: the building’s decor communicates, “we are winners and always do things right!”
  3. The standard that management uses for self-evaluation is low
  4. The focus is on narrow, functional goals rather than broad business performance (no one feels responsible when the overall business is struggling)
  5. Planning and control systems are rigged to meet these narrow, functional goals
  6. Performance feedback comes from these rigged control systems (external stakeholder feedback is not collected or reviewed)
  7. Collecting external feedback/ honest discussion is discouraged because it could hurt morale or people’s feelings
  8. Complacency is supported by broad denial/ ignorance of problems
  9. Those concerned about the organization’s present or future are lulled to sleep by “happy talk” (Senior Management only talks about past successes and victories)

Before a leader can begin to establish or raise a sense of urgency in their organization, they need to remove these sources of complacency.

Here are some ways Kotter recommends doing so from Chapter 3 of Leading Change:


Ideas to Remove Sources of Complacency

  1. Eliminate corporate excess
  2. Raise standards of evaluation formally and informally
  3. Focus internal measurement systems on meaningful business intelligence (broad business goals)
  4. Increase the amount of external feedback that every person receives
  5. Reward honest talk in meetings as well as people who address problems directly
  6. Bring an end to management “happy talk”
Some practical ideas:
  • Review customer feedback regularly: weekly or monthly, not merely once per year
  • Use external data to counteract complacency
  • Never underestimate the forces upholding status quo/ reinforcing complacency

Often, removing sources of complacency will by itself raise the level of urgency in an organization. A leader who suddenly sells off the company jet or ends an important but failing project will wake people out of their complacency.

For leaders to effectively establish a sense of urgency and kick start the transformation effort, they must first be the kind of leader who is trusted across the organization. Removing complacency and establishing urgency usually requires the leader to take bold and risky actions, actions that the leader knows will lead to the long-term success of the organization, even if those actions are painful in the meantime. Here are more strategies (by Kotter) that leaders can use to establish urgency:


Establish and Raise Urgency

  1. Create a crisis by revealing a financial loss or competitive weakness that have been hidden or overlooked
  2. Set revenue, income, productivity, customer satisfaction targets so high that they can’t be met by doing “business as usual”
  3. Stop measuring performance by narrow functional goals and instead make more people accountable to broader business performance
  4. Send more data about customer satisfaction and financial performance to a greater % of employees
  5. Ensure people hear and can make changes according to feedback from external stakeholders
  6. Use consultants and fresh voices to force honest discussions into management meetings
  7. Put honest discussions about the big problems in corporate communications (meetings, newsletters etc.)
  8. Communicate often about future opportunities, rewards for capitalizing on them, and the firm’s inability to do so presently

Effective leaders use more carrots than sticks – the sense of urgency they create is communicated this way, “today we have a window of opportunity, but that opportunity may close tomorrow, so we need to act now.” Leaders appeal to both logic and emotions and clarify where each member of the organization’s energy should be directed.

Once a sense of urgency is established, the natural outflow of it is for people to begin getting together to talk about what must be done. A subtle shift takes place, where members of the company have a “focused readiness” to act, and instead of one leader trying to guide the entire transformation effort, a coalition of people across every department join in the effort.


Are you a leader desiring transformation?

If reading this article inspires you to begin establishing urgency in your Agency, here are some important questions to ask yourself to help you plan the process of transformation:

  • Do you see an opportunity for your organization that would inspire people’s hearts and minds?
  • Do you know how to identify, articulate, and communicate it?
  • Can you connect an external change factor with a special capability of your organization?
  • What are the stakes if you succeed? What are the stakes if you fail?


Topics: change management

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