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Blog: Sustaining Urgency

Blog: Sustaining Urgency

You can develop a business case that is strong, well thought out and fully supported by all of the facts – in other words, one that is entirely intellectual, which “aims for the head” - and watch support for the project gradually decline as the inevitable difficulties emerge.

Or, says Harvard Business School professor and leadership expert John P. Kotter, you can build a business case that aims for the heart and get the kind of buy-in that sustains support for the project even as the inevitable difficulties unfold.

“Underlying the urgent behaviour that makes organizations succeed in a turbulent world is not only a set of thoughts. It’s not only, ‘There is a great opportunity or hazard (in IT, for example) and therefore logically we must deal with it.’ Underlying a true sense of urgency is a set of feelings: a compulsive determination to move, and win, now,” Kotter writes in his new book from Harvard Business Press, A Sense of Urgency.

“When it comes to affecting behaviour – creating alert, fast-moving actions that are focused on an important issue, relentlessly launching needed initiatives or cooperating with the initiatives of others, pushing to achieve more ambitious goals despite the obstacles, trying to achieve progress each and every day, constantly purging low-value activities so that time is available to do this – feelings are more influential than thoughts. This was the central conclusion I first fully understood as a result of the research reported in my book The Heart of Change. This is a perspective that is rarely acknowledged in the classroom or the boardroom.

People haven’t said for centuries that “Great leaders win over the minds of others,” Kotter points out; they’ve said “Great leaders win over the hearts and minds of others.” And notice how in that sentence, ‘heart’, not ‘mind’, comes first.

And so in his new book Kotter outlines four helpful tactics to create what he believes will enhance any business: a constant sense of urgency.

Arguing the business case on facts won’t create the sense of urgency that’s needed to achieve true organizational change, Kotter says. You need to instil urgency in employees by tugging at their heart strings. Don’t make your case on PowerPoint, he says. Tells them a story instead.

Neurologists say our brains are wired much more for stories than for PowerPoint slides and abstract ideas. Our feelings seem to enjoy stories with a little drama, and we remember these much longer than any dry slide filled with analytics.

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