Have you ever been inside a successful, innovative technology (or other type of) start-up? Whenever I set foot in one, I am struck by a culture of high energy, intensity, curiosity about their markets and customers with a palpable drive to learn and engage in conversation. This energy is highly focused, however; driven by shared purpose and a sense of urgency. This is how a Google employee described its culture, for example:
"We share everything we can. We have a weekly all-hands meeting called TGIF, hosted by our founders, Larry and Sergey. In the first 30 minutes, we review news and product launches from the past week, demo upcoming products, and celebrate wins….Everything is up for question and debate, from the trivial (“Larry, now that you’re CEO will you start wearing a suit?” The answer was a definite ‘no’), to the ethical (“Is Google going in the right direction)."
The new basis for competitive advantage today, as evidenced in today’s market leaders like Google, is not in products or efficiency. It is created through constant, disruptive innovation and a complete focus on customers and markets; in other words, by leveraging the human dimensions of a business to create value.
Oh how I wished I was a software engineer and could have worked in such innovative environments during my years of working in large, non-profit organizations. After encounters with such novel cultures during projects or when negotiating partnerships, I would come back to my office routines of restless staff meetings, busy but bored colleagues, exchanges of furtive glances and rolling of the eyes among us in secret allusions to irrational policies and incompetent management practices.
Bureaucracies have built-in mechanisms for sapping employees’ motivation and talents by drowning them in oceans of logistics, reactive crisis management and tactical thinking.
Here is the thing! Operating at a breakneck pace in an environment of constant crises, tasks and activities is not the same as leading with a sense of strategic urgency.
Think about when something is perceived as urgent in most organizations: preparing for the annual conference seems to whip everything and everyone into frenzy for months on end. Nothing else can compete for staff’s attention and anything peripheral to this preparation is put on hold. Deadlines for journals , educational programs, board meetings, budget submissions likewise infuse most organizations with a sense of urgency. While the absence of motivation and engagement in a shared, strategic purpose makes this kind of “urgency” exhausting and unproductive rather than inspiring and energizing, it still coalesces people and resources around an objective. It drives them toward an outcome until it has been achieved. This is what urgency does. The shared belief in the urgency of a goal or activity has a way of cutting through the clutter and focusing organizations on the activities that are essential to the desired goal;
Yet the same intensity is not applied to anything outside the realm of operational management and deadlines. Great ideas and possibilities become wistful to-do lists “when there is time.” Strategic planning can linger for ever on refining processes and constructing elegant definitions and inspiring goals, without the urge to drive them to execution. “Innovation,” strategic thinking or bold plans may be good topics for a retreat or a formal, strategic planning exercise but they do not rise to the level of priority to address immediately.
Maybe this was the biggest difference between my prestigious, established employers of the past and the high energy innovators I occasionally had dealings with. The latter reversed the conventional logic and priorities of established organizations, treating the "peripheral"--customers and relationships; strategic thinking, innovation, change, etc.-- as the "core" and treating it with the same sense of urgency reserved for annual conferences or board relationships in other organizations.
The lack of urgency for any significant, long-term destination beyond short-term, operational issues keeps many associations stuck to the status quo in spite of new visions or strategies. To “talk the talk” of change without backing it up by “walking the walk”—treating them with the urgency and focus other priorities command—is a signal to everyone not to take them seriously.
Wthout urgency any effort at change is doomed according to John Kotter, former Harvard Business School profession and acclaimed author on leading change, in his book A Sense of Urgency.
It is only communicating a sense of urgency that can translate “speech-making” into action. To guide organizations to a new direction, Kotter believes, the first step that a leader must take is to establish a sense of urgency and extricate thinking from the complacency of “business as usual.”
Urgency is not a one-time burst of energy. To lead an innovative, adaptable and motivated organization, urgency has to be re-ignited over and over again and complacency constantly disrupted. And unless a leader designates and treats change and innovation as urgent priorities no organization can convert talk into action.