A Sense of Urgency - A Book Review

John Kotter, A Sense of Urgency, Harvard Business Press, Boston, Massachusetts, 2008.pp. 196, Rs.495, Soft.

Every organisation needs to change with the time, failing which it may stand at the risk of being pushed into oblivion and labelled obsolete by the more enterprising competitors in the market. To have a strategy of change management, an organisation requires a culture that acts as a source for the regular improvement of its employees. Many organisational changes and initiatives end up as a failure or deliver lukewarm results because people tend to be either too comfortable with the status quo or they get distracted into the ‘false urgency,’ which is often about people focusing on the activities rather than the results. This book specifically deals with creating a high enough sense of true urgency and reducing complacency that often creeps in the organisations.

John Kotter is a Professor at the Harvard Business School and a widely regarded name and renowned authority on leadership and change management. Professor Kotter has published sixteen books that have brought him great honour and awards. The content and theme of this book is inspired from his earlier book ‘Leading Change,’ which is an international bestseller in which the author had revealed why change is so hard; and had provided an actionable eight-step process for implementing successful transformations. They are mentioned below.

  • Establish a sense of urgency,
  • Form a powerful guiding coaling team,
  • Create a clear vision expressed simply,
  • Communicate the vision,
  • Empower others to act on the vision,
  • Plan for creating short term gains,
  • Consolidate improvements for producing still more change and
  • Institutionalise new approaches

In order to successfully manage the change processes, it is necessary to analyse the phases of this process. In this book, Kotter has focused on the crucial first step of his framework, ‘creating a sense of urgency’ by getting people to actually see and feel the need for a change: why it is becoming an exceptionally important asset, and how it can be created and sustained within the organisations.

Each part of this book, comprising of nine chapters, begins with an overview of that particular topic and then an explanation by putting it in a context by vivid and powerful stories. The gist of the chapters is being summarised in tabular form wherever possible. Examples and situations given enable ease in the understanding. Data have been used wherever required that the author has drawn from his vast experience, research and earlier writings.

Kotter believes that organisational change cannot happen unless it begins with a sense of urgency, and he shows how to spotlight that need, how to make employees actually feel it, and how to maintain that feeling throughout the process. Complacency has been defined as a feeling of self-satisfaction or contentment with the status quo without awareness of any danger. This book explains how this complacency creates sluggishness and arrogance leaving us without any perspective often occurring as a result of past successes.

True urgency has its focus on critical issues with a deep determination to win and not anxiety of losing. Here the author clearly distinguishes it with false urgency that is often marked by frantic activity, meetings and projects often arising as a result of a problem with the short term goals or recent failures. Questions given at the end of the second chapter helps in figuring out whether one’s organisation is a victim of complacency or false urgency serving as an eye-opener.

A very interesting point put forth by the author through the example of an IT project initiated in a company brings out the valuable point as to how a business case often fails in an organisation when the buy-in or cooperation is completely intellectual i.e. it is all head and no heart. The example of Martin Luther King Jr further reinforces the point about converting anxiety into commitment b> touching the heart. The book mentions that our brains are programmed much for the stories than power-point presentations or abstract ideas. Similarly, the tactic for bringing in true urgency aimed at heart is more influential. This could probably be so because as Peter Salovey shares in his book, the emotion centres of the brain are not relegated to a secondary position in our thinking and reasoning but are an integral part of what it means to think, reason and be intelligent even after 300 million years as the human brain has become bigger and more complex.

This book talks about four tactics to increase a true sense of urgency. First, one talks about ‘bringing the outside in’ or being connected to the outside hazards and opportunities. This has been described in detail where the author suggests how historical successes lead to an inward focus and decline in an inclination to look outside. This is when a fresh young competitor creeps in and takes advantage. The model presented here seems quite simplistic. It might be true in many cases. However, if success in itself is a result of sustained effort, striving for excellence and connectivity and coordination between the internal and external environment, then the idea of success causing inward focus creates a feeling of doubt.

One of the ways of creating urgency mentioned under tactic three is worth appreciating where the author talks about how sometimes inwardly focused organisations can have bombs going off next door and not be aware of it. In these kinds of situations, and when natural events do not create any crisis, the author suggests creating a crisis situation. At first glance it may seem absurd, but the examples are given as to how, when and why to go for this is very much convincing for the reader. The fourth tactic, ‘dealing with the ‘no-no’ has been taken from the earlier fable written by the author ‘our iceberg is melting.’ It makes fun reading and precisely presents how to deal with the individuals who have usually learned different methods to delay action, use disruptive practices and deny acceptance of majority decision. However here the author could have thrown light on the positive side of a no-no and how it can be employed for organisations’ advantage such as the role of a devil’s advocate at times when taking a daisy decision.

It is said that good books change us, they change the way we look at the world and make us question the basic assumptions we take for granted as we examine the world around us. This book explores the ramifications of the basic premises and reveals deep truths about change. One can very well relate to the ideas and situations presented in this book as the author attempts to answer the question most often asked to him regarding the single biggest error people make when they try to change. A book that generates enough thoughts in the mind as it enables a better understanding of the complexities and challenges in organisations and offers useful ideas to grab opportunities and avoid hazards in a continuously changing world.


David R. Caruso, Peter Salovey (2004). The Emotionally Intelligent Manager-How to Develop and Use the Four Key Emotional Skills of Leadership, Jossey Bass, A Wiley Imprint, San Francisco.

Published at:

N. Farah (2008), “A Sense of Urgency: Book Review”.  VISION—The Journal of Business Perspective. Sage Publication. Vol. 12.  No. 4. PP 92-93


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