Managing Change: Create a Sense of Urgency

Managing Change: Create a Sense of Urgency

Summary: When trying to change organizations, executives sometimes plunge ahead without establishing a sufficient sense of urgency. George Low, director of the Apollo 11 first landing on the moon, provides eight ways to increase the sense of urgency in your organization.

One of the biggest mistakes that executives make when trying to change their organization is to plunge ahead without establishing a sufficient sense of urgency. They underestimate how hard it is to drive people out of their comfort zones.

Even if there are committed leaders at the top, sooner or later, no matter how hard they push, no matter how much they threaten, if many others don’t feel the same sense of urgency, the momentum for change will probably die far short of the finish line.

In an organization with 100 employees, at least two dozen must go far beyond the normal call of duty to produce a significant change.  In a firm with 6000 employees, the same might be required of 750 or more.

Why are people complacent?

  • No highly visible crisis
  • No exciting vision – no targets on the horizon
  • People are focused on meeting narrow functional goals – not the big targets
  • Low overall performance standards
  • The culture is low-candor, low-confrontation so they don’t take risks
  • They feel isolated from the customers, not knowing if they are making a difference

George Low: A visionary leader who knew how to create excitement…

Fresh out of graduate school, I had the opportunity to work with George Low, President of the university of which I was a new professor. He had been Director of the Apollo 11 moon flight. He wrote the letter to Kennedy saying we could put a man on the moon and he did it. In fact, NASA’s quality award is named after him. For seven years, I was able to participate on numerous projects and teams with George. He created excitement! He was the best manager I’ve ever had or seen.

How he created urgency:

  • He created big exciting goals – what many today would call Big Hairy Audacious Goals.
  • Targets were believable, yet so high that they couldn’t be reached without innovation and new ways of thinking.
  • He held people accountable for the broader company or project goals – not just individual performance.
  • He allowed us to focus on the right things – a no-nonsense lean approach to what was important. We were not burdened with the trivial.
  • An enormously safe and open environment was created where we could take risks. We knew that if we did not speak our minds, we put whatever we were working on in jeopardy.
  • Timelines were demanding. We knew what we had to accomplish and by when.
  • Continual feedback was given on how we were stacking up to the performance expectations that were set.
  • Opportunities were made for talking to customers and, if possible, visiting their facilities to gain appreciation of the value and importance of our products and services.

With focus, a belief in what we were doing, and a feeling of safety, he created an environment where we felt we were really making a difference. Urgency? Heck yes, we couldn’t wait to accomplish the goal!

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