Federal agency and department leaders face a period of dramatic change. Administration handover— always stressful, but uniquely challenging this year — brings new paradigms and priorities. When combined with ongoing change efforts, from improving customer service to digital adoption, it means many leaders will be transforming their organizations in an environment of unrest and division that pulls focus from the new agenda.
How can leaders create the urgency needed to drive critical change when everything seems urgent?
After years of efficiency measures, new policies and hiring freezes, then the pandemic and election, the federal workforce is exhausted. Fortunately, there are proven ways to establish urgency that energize, support and empower your team.
Distinguish true urgency
First, we must recognize the differences between complacency, false urgency and true urgency. Complacency is contentment or satisfaction that ignores trouble. We may dismiss complacency as “not a problem today!” But its roots and expressions are pervasive. Complacency flows from past success. It says, “I don’t see anything that needs changing or to be done differently.” It can look like following routines, not questioning processes and rejecting ideas to change.
Insidious because it masquerades as the real thing, false urgency has its roots in past failures or in intense pressure on a group. It is characterized by anxiety, fear and anger. People and workplaces in the grip of false urgency are busy, even frenetic. But the activity is reactive, self-protective and focused on survival. False urgency has people racing from meeting to meeting, with little time to tackle real problems. Critical issues are delegated to consultants or task forces because no one has time for them.
True urgency, on the other hand, is inspiring and forward-looking, taking relentlessly focused action in pursuit of a significant, meaningful opportunity. It is energizing. True urgency demands, “What can we do today in pursuit of our opportunities?” It makes people want to come to work, give their best efforts and try new things. So how can leaders create this true urgency?
Engage both head and heart
First, leaders must move beyond the logical “business case,” and engage people’s hearts, their feelings, their shared sense of purpose. True urgency is born when sound analysis and ambitious, logical goals are enlivened with legitimate meaning, excitement and inspiration.
Identifying the importance of the opportunity in front of you and sharing it broadly across the organization is critical to aligning people’s minds and hearts throughout the organization and accelerating action. It is both rational, based on available data, and emotionally resonant. It must compellingly describe a time-bound window to the future that is opening now and make people excited to jump through it.
Role model the behavior you want to see every day
Leaders need to model behavior that communicates true urgency. This starts at the top, but leaders throughout the organization can have a powerful impact in this way. Make decisions quickly, move decisively into action on opportunities, and sustain effort and momentum. Show a relentless commitment to success and make progress every day.
Create space in your own calendar and your peoples’ by purging low priority to-dos (false urgency), focusing attention on the important things, delegating as needed and holding people accountable.
Talk it up! Explain decisions in the context of urgency and opportunity. Recognize and publicly celebrate every win that moves the organization in the right direction. Speak with urgency and passion.
Last year’s best example of a public service leader modeling urgency is Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. His focus has been unwavering throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Recognizing the need to repeatedly reach many different audiences, Dr. Fauci has regularly appeared not just on daily coronavirus briefings and mainstream news networks, but on non-traditional media, like Instagram Live with Stephen Curry, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and The New York Times “The Daily” podcast. His message is clear and consistent: here’s what science tells us, what we still don’t know, and what we must do. As well as presenting the facts, he engages his audience with empathy, connecting emotionally with what they are going through.
Find opportunity in crises
Using crises to reduce complacency and create urgency is possible but risky.
Generally, a “burning platform” is an outmoded approach to driving transformation, dating from when change was more episodic. While it can be useful (i.e., at the beginning of the pandemic when new technologies had to be adopted quickly), it is not sustainable and can lead to burnout. A crisis, however, can present opportunities to establish true urgency for change. For example, the pandemic has spurred federal departments like the IRS, DoD and NASA to adopt broad-based teleworking, improving employee satisfaction, productivity and cost efficiency. In the emerging widespread computer hacking calamity lie the seeds of a much stronger cybersecurity regime. Leaders who proactively seek opportunities in crisis, take considered action and engage people with conviction and optimism can leverage crises to build true urgency.
Stay alert to common pitfalls while taking advantage of new opportunities and momentum. Mistakes to avoid include:
- Assuming that a crisis will inevitably create true urgency. Turmoil without care and intentionality can have the opposite effect.
- Using the crisis to take actions that leave people feeling manipulated, disadvantaged or cynical.
- Underestimating the disaster that a crisis can bring. People who are grieving, raging or afraid for their families or their livelihoods make building true urgency more difficult.
- Pushing the organization into a survival mode, killing innovation and collaboration.
With all the noise and turmoil disrupting thought-out goals and objectives, creating true urgency and keeping it front and center must be a leader’s first priority when embarking on a major change effort.
Martha Kesler, MSOD, is a principal at Kotter, who directs Kotter’s federal portfolio. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Katy Paul-Chowdhury is an affiliate at Kotter. She can be reached at email@example.com.