Change and sense of urgency

How much drama does it take until something actually moves?

April 4, 2020

Anyone who is familiar with change processes knows it: something like a ‘burning platform’ is needed to get a desired transformation up and running. According to John Kotter’s Change Management Model, it is the central element to lead a change to success. In private life, too, it is often the case that even the important things have to become urgent before something finally happens. Transformations in companies have two possible causal motives as triggers for an urgency scenario: disaster is imminent, such as a slump in sales, cost explosion or aggressive competitors.

Or there is an ambition for a better future, e.g. growth offensive, innovative offers or new business models. Experience shows that a disaster scenario is more powerful than the chance for a better future in order to create an effective burning platform. Fear is the psychologically stronger driver and therefore positive future ambitions are often made urgent with a threat component – according to the motto: attack is the best defense. A growth offensive, for example, can contain threatening arguments, such as the possible loss of market share, in addition to the good prospects for more sales.

But the same mechanisms also apply in a global context. The corona pandemic is a good example of how differently global leaders are dealing with the challenge. In the case of the threat of climate change, scientific findings – facts that overwhelmingly demonstrate the need for change – have been available for more than 20 years, but little has changed. Apparently, a great many young people have to go out peacefully every Friday for a very long time. Only time will tell whether the necessary changes will be implemented.

So how much drama does it take until something actually moves?

A scenario highlighting the urgency must be developed which answers the questions “Why?” and “Why now?” Leaders must develop and communicate an appropriate and credible formulation for this, as it should usually lead directly to a change in priorities. Experienced employees are not experiencing this situation for the first time, because they live in a time of constant change.

Every impending change is almost always critically scrutinized. If the experiences of many employees show that the urgency presented is not credible, open rejection or passive resistance will be the reaction. Many employees have already walked a few ‘extra miles’ in vain and no longer believe the new announcements without further ado. One just listens to the news and waits.

It is similar to false alarms: If you ran out of the house at top speed after three false alarms, you would run out of the house slowly or not at all after the fourth alarm – possibly with bad consequences. The lack of credibility of urgency scenarios in the past thus leads to a kind of inflation of the ‘burning platform’. The goal must be to outline an urgency scenario appropriate to the context and history.

An urgency scenario is automatically checked for plausibility by each person concerned. Acceptance of the need for change is the core, the key element to be achieved. All available empirical values are used, and possible consequences are weighed up. Less experienced employees are usually left with the option of blindly trusting the experts. The time factor is of particular importance here. On the one hand, it is the time from the appearance of the first warning signals to the safe, accepted realization that it is actually a warning signal. Secondly, it is the estimated time needed to develop and implement measures. A simple example will show the common patterns: a mountain hiking group will follow its mountain guide if the guide recognizes threatening weather changes in time and brings the group to safety.

If this group has no experience with the weather, they will usually trust the mountain guide immediately. They will probably not have noticed the first signal of the weather change and will bear the change of plan of their hiking route, even if the summit is not reached. A few hours have passed from the announcement that the path has to be changed (initial impulse) to the confirmation that it was right to change the route (distinct thunderstorm). The trust in the mountain guide grew more and more, because after some time everybody could see for himself how the weather became worse and worse. If, contrary to the urgent warning, the weather remains fine, trust in the mountain guide has been lost and disappointment about the missed summit ascent is the consequence.

The same mountain hike probably looks quite different with experienced participants. The decision of the mountain guide will be subject to controversy because the experienced participants will evaluate the initial signals about the weather change and the suggestion for a changed hiking route very differently. Experience, willingness to take risks and the degree of the proposed change will lead to discussion. More experience in the team will generally lead to a better assessment of the situation and as long as decisions are made and implemented in time, the group may reach the summit with calculated risk and still arrive safely.

Whether in the private leisure environment, in companies or in larger overarching organizations, responsible persons will have to master leadership through change. In the process, those who are led and those affected will want to think along with them and will participate in the assessment of an urgency scenario. Five elements are very important in the assessment and development of urgency scenarios:

1. The degree of change

The degree of change that is associated with urgency: A slight course correction may not trigger much discussion, but a radical 180° turnaround may.

2. The dimension of a change

The dimension of a change: In most cases the dimension can be classified with the number of people affected or the value of the affected resources and assets. It makes a difference whether, for example, only one plant with its employees or all production plants are affected.

3. The latency time

The latency time (also called dead time in control engineering) is the time that passes between the impulse and the effect. In the example of mountain hiking it is several hours from the harbingers of bad weather to a thunderstorm. Here, only the mountain guide as an expert has recognized it correctly and in time. In the case of a hotplate, it is only a few seconds from switching on until the full heat is reached.

With infectious diseases it is the incubation period, from the often-unnoticed infection to the outbreak of the disease. In the case of a tanker, it is the time it takes to change course after the rudder has been turned to avoid a collision. In the music industry, it is the time from the introduction of i-Tunes to a significant slump in CD sales. In general, the longer the latency period, the more difficult it is to maintain a credible urgency scenario.

4. The observability

The observability during the latency period: If you can follow what happens from the first perceptible impulse to the effect during the latency period, you get immediate plausibility. This allows the urgency to be maintained even during a longer latency period. For this, it must be constantly well communicated.

In the examples, the weather became significantly worse at some point, the hotplate became increasingly red, the infection began with a minor scratching in the throat, with the tanker nothing could be perceived at first and only a few people associated the weaknesses in the CD sales with i-Tunes entering the industry.

5. The complexity

The complexity of cause-effect parameters in an urgency scenario: The available experience also plays a central role here. In simple contexts, such as the hotplate example, little experience is sufficient to bring about plausible changes. The more complex it becomes, the more difficult it is to identify relevant initial signals or impulses.

With which knowledge or experience can clear correlations be shown in a reliable way? A large number of dependencies then often require several experts to assess an urgency scenario and show a robust way out. The more complex an urgency scenario is and the less plausible it is for individuals, the more difficult it becomes to initiate change.

Conclusion

A credible urgency scenario considers the five elements and takes into account the context and history in order not to fall into the ‘inflation trap’ of urgency.

Everyone has had their own experience with this, and especially in uncertain situations, such as now with the corona pandemic, it is only gradually becoming apparent whether an urgency scenario is actually credible. And if there is anything to be gained from this terrible event, it is the hope that the experience gained will be useful in combating other challenges such as the climate crisis of our planet. Unfortunately, all five elements of urgency have the highest degree of difficulty here: a high degree of change that can be achieved; a maximum dimension – the entire Earth is affected; a very long latency period, even if the first visible signals, such as the dying glaciers, have existed for a long time; direct observability is experienced by only a few in everyday life; a high degree of complexity that is recognized and explained by enough scientists, but there is no reliable experience with this type of transformation. We are breaking new ground – leadership is required.

We are happy to support you with our experience in the assessment and development of urgency scenarios.

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