The Harvard Business Review’s John Kotter details the difference between hyperactivity, complacence, and true urgency. When companies face economic peril, he says that two things happen:
Finger-pointing: …an astonishingly large number of people (see) the problem, or the action required to solve the problem, as “over there.” They–the marketing department, the senior management, the engineers, the government–need to act swiftly. When people see the problem and solution as “over there,” they typically do little to change what they are doing.
Unproductive activity: In places where there is not the finger-pointing complacency, what I see is anxiety- or anger-driven activity. Not productivity or results–just activity. I do see people nearly running down the halls. But they seem to be running in circles.
He emphasizes that these attitudes accomplish nothing. In order to survive, companies must cultivate a true sense of urgency, which is very different from activity and finger-pointing:
There is a huge difference between 1) complacent, what-can-I-do feelings, 2) anxious, angry, flustered feelings, and 3) a deep determination to make something useful happen today so we will not just survive, but win…true urgency is a set of emotions, a gut-level feeling that we need to get up every single day with total determination to do something to deal with those hazards and opportunities and make some progress, no matter how modest, and do so today.
It’s a powerful point. I have seen companies act complacent and unproductive-yet-active even when there was no direct economic threat. These two pitfalls strike me as incredibly easy to fall into–especially during hard economic times.
Kotter offers three steps towards cultivating an effective sense of urgency. They’re worth reading.