A bank with a national footprint wants to change the way frontline staff are relating to customers. In the context of a leader-led program, a short film is prepared to reflect the way actual customers felt about their service experience. The film covers positive and the negative customer experiences, and we see indifferent and impassioned customer reactions. The film is shown to frontline leaders and, in the ensuing discussion, the reality of the current state is collectively affirmed. The case for change is clear. It is authentic, not hysterical. It is shared, not the view of a single leader. It encompasses the complexity of the operating environment and the unpredictable nature of customers. A sense of urgency has been effectively created.

Kotter tells us that your first challenge in creating lasting change is to create awareness that change is needed and strong desire to do something about it. If you recognise the need to be more adaptive and responsive in an increasingly changing and fast paced market, know that all changes to your strategy, or new strategies, are change projects. You will have to be able to identify and then implement these projects at least at the pace of the market, if not faster.

Urgency beats complacency

Urgency is a positive force within a healthy organisation. It is essential to achieving the other steps in the change process, as illustrated in this diagram.


(source Kotter, John P. “The Big Idea: Accelerate” Harvard Business Review November 2012, pp 45-58)

Kotter Urgency Graphic trimmed

The sense of urgency has to start at the top and is a key feature of leadership. Leadership must be sought, encouraged and actively promoted throughout the organisation; you want people to come to work each day keen to do whatever they can to move the business closer to the change goal.

Urgency also has to be felt around an opportunity that is both rational and emotionally exciting. On its own, a cogent argument for change won’t do it. People must feel how great it will be. These feelings are the basis of the entire change project.

Without cultivating this feeling within the business, your change agents either won’t volunteer, or they won’t be motivated to keep going. Naysayers will grab onto early wins as proof that further change is not needed, or if needed, is not urgent. Inertia will resurface.

Behaviour Matters

In change processes you are changing behaviours, first and foremost. Look out for the behaviours you don’t want. There are four main sets of behaviours that block change:

  • Complacency – can come from misplaced pride or lack of understanding
  • Immobility – usually from fear or panic – a sort of self-protection
  • Obstructionism – often driven by anger.
  • Pessimism – causes frequent hesitation.

Creating urgency moderates the effects of the extremes, and stimulates the behaviours that will catalyse and see the change through.

Don’t we need a vision first?

It seems logical to set direction before taking action – but think about this – creating a good vision is really difficult; one person alone can’t do it – a team is needed. This means you need your guiding coalition, and you need people motivated to change to put the coalition together. Finding the right people, and gaining their commitment to take on a difficult task is much more possible with a sense of urgency.

Won’t a constant state of crisis just create fear and anxiety?

Urgency is not fear – if you generate too much anxiety about crises your people will focus on the source of their anxiety, self-preservation and nothing else. Certainly, if you have a crisis you have to deal with it, but for change to be lasting, a sense of urgency must be positively framed, and focused on opportunities.

Complacency and inertia are easier paths to take and if the culture and structures are not right, anxiety and anger often arise. People do not naturally feel comfortable in a perpetual state of urgency, and some people believe you have to create crises to generate urgency – but this is not the case. Crises certainly help to galvanise people to action, but crises also cause problems. There are much less risky ways to generate a sense of urgency.

Can just one person make a difference?

Another challenge to the sense of urgency is lack of power; real or perceived. Do your staff feel empowered to speak out, take action, make a contribution outside of business-as-usual? Many organisations are now putting their attention to broadening their understanding of leadership – and it’s this type of empowerment that will enable your messages about what has to be done to be received and used to fuel urgent action within people.

So how do you do it then?

You have to move people – appeal to the head and the heart, not just the head. You have to be honest, find evidence and communicate in a way that will enable people to feel the truth.

Open the channels of experience and perspective – interact with and engage with clients, stakeholders and communities. Let your people out into the world, and bring the world in to you.

Lead by acting urgently – too often senior people talk up urgency but don’t act as if things are actually urgent. Your actions speak louder than your words.

Deal with people who are undermining and relentlessly negative. You can’t ignore those who put up roadblocks all along the way – and moving them up into the guiding coalition won’t work if they still don’t agree and believe in the need for change – it can make it worse.

If you read Kotter and Cohen’s book The Heart of Change, you will find some informative, real-world examples of each of the stages in practice. Key features of the experiences that work are that they show people, they don’t tell them. They use valid, dramatic evidence – creating tangible illustrations people can see and feel. They keep doing it, and they never underestimate how much complacency, fear or anger can exist.

How coup can help you

Our capabilities are in being able to construct, share and facilitate discussion about stories that capture the combination of rational and emotional drivers that will create urgency for your change.

The media we work with varies from video production – drama and documentary – to conference theatre, storytelling and other live events.

With video, we often interview people across the spectrum of staff and stakeholders, business customers and customer relationship managers, frontline workers and business leaders, and we piece together stories that demonstrate how existing strategies may be working to create value and keep people safe. Naturally these productions celebrate what’s working well, which is useful when the aim is to celebrate success and reinforce best practice.

However, consider the use of video productions that dwell predominantly with the urgent need for change. Imagine a selection of customer interviews that describe how the market may be moving away from the organisation’s signature products and services; stories that alert the leaders in the business to what others are achieving by way of innovation and adaptation, or culture.   There is a balance to be struck so that the impact of the story is not to immobilise the leadership cohort with panic, but rather to provide a clear-eyed and realistic appraisal of how fast the market is moving and what will be the cost of complacency and inertia, and perhaps, what will be the rewards of creating change.

Video is not the only way to capture this kind of story. If the change you want to create is more about culture and behaviour, theatre may be a more effective vehicle. The live quality of theatre can be even more compelling. Generally, theatre is more immediate and personal. It provides opportunities for the audience to engage directly with the actors, to shape the outcomes of transactions by adjusting things like mindset, assumptions, behaviour and values. The aim is to awaken realisation that change is necessary and urgent through a collective experience.

Consider the conversations that could be triggered at your next leadership conference or strategy offsite with a story delivered via film or live theatre. Or how a story could establish the context for a training workshop or strategy session. The costs of staging these events can be significant – so don’t waste this opportunity to really connect. We have often seen the business reach for the latest version of the “Did You Know?” video, download low-resolution version from YouTube and play it from the PowerPoint. We believe you can do better.

To enjoy the full benefits that come from creating a sense of urgency, notably the recruitment of a committed aligned guiding coalition, our recommendation is that you invest in tools that are customised to resonate with your audience, focusing their attention on the specific environmental and market conditions that demand attention and recognition.

We are highly experienced and business-literate corporate story-tellers. If change is on your horizon, call us and lets talk. The initial conversation will cost you nothing other than your time and could lay the foundation for a spectacularly exciting and successful change experience for you and your organisation.

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