John Kotter – A sense of urgency

It is not true that “the only constant is change”. Another constant is the proliferation of consulting firms and wannabe gurus who will tell you that “the only constant is change”. Sometimes I don’t know what creates more noise – change, or the experts who talk about it.

All the more reason why a recent lunch with Harvard Business School’s John Kotter in a quiet restaurant in London was such a delight. Professor Kotter’s name will be familiar to many FT readers from his book Leading Change (1996). He has been recognised as one of the world’s leading (genuine) experts on how to manage change successfully.

In Leading Change Prof Kotter set out an eight step process that could help organisations get to grips with change. The first step is “create a sense of urgency”.  Now Prof Kotter has published a follow-up book, called, simply, A sense of urgency. His point is that more change initiatives fail because of a lack of this crucial element than for any other reason. “You have to get this right at the start,” he told me. “It all stems from that.”

Prof Kotter distinguishes between false and true urgency. False urgency is frenetic, panic-stricken, energy-sapping. True urgency is steady, unrelenting, purposeful, intense but not body- and soul-destroying. True urgency involves trying to do things a bit better all the time.

Complacency and denial are the enemies of true urgency. Prof Kotter told me that, after all his years studying businesses and organisations, he can now spot them a mile off. “Very, very smart people can struggle with this,” he said.

I will be reviewing the book for the FT shortly. I feel a sense of urgency to spread the word.

About the authors

Stefan Stern writes a column on Tuesdays on management. He is winner of the 2010 Towers Watson award for excellence in HR journalism, and has previously won awards from the Work Foundation and the Management Consultancies Association.

Ravi Mattu is the editor of Business Life, the FT's management features section, and a former editor of the Mastering Management series. He joined the FT in 2000 from Prospect magazine

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