The old saw, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a lazy way to work and a lazier way to lead. This adage assumes a static environment and a perfectly tuned system. John Kotter, in his book A Sense of Urgency, offers a better way – “if it ain’t broke, break it“—an admonition to leaders (and followers) to challenge the status quo and drive improvement and innovation in systems known to be broken and those that are already excellent.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” assumes a static environment and perfectly tuned systems. These are false assumptions. There is no such thing as a static environment and, therefore, no such thing as a perfectly tuned system. The challenge for most organizations today is that leaders, and followers, have lost a sense of urgency about what it is that they do. The reason many organizations fall into mediocrity, decline, and failure is that the people within approach their work actively seeking to maintain the status quo. They do not want to rock the boat. They want to preserve their comfort zone, not realizing that in doing so they are actively destroying what they cherish.
The only solution is to create a sense of urgency. Many of you are familiar with Kotter’s eight steps for leading change. Two of his earlier books present the eight steps in detail1. Briefly, they are:
- Establish a sense of urgency
- Form a powerful guiding coalition
- Create a vision
- Communicate the vision
- Empower others to act
- Create short-term wins
- Consolidate improvements for more change
- Root changes in the new culture
In Kotter’s research with hundreds of organizations, he has found that following the order of these eight steps is critical. More importantly, creating a sense of urgency is the most important – yet most often overlooked. Take a moment to consider a recent change effort in your own organization. What is the first action most often taken? Answer: either putting a team together or creating a vision for what things should look like. Rarely is an appropriate sense of urgency established first.
So how do leaders create a sense of urgency?
The first skill is increasing awareness of the environment outside your organization. Organizations are far too inward focused today. They are too inward focused because their people are too inward focused. We look too much at what is going on in our own department, our own work unit, and in our own selves. These are all good things, but not at the expense of looking outside. Environmental scanning increases awareness of potential problems as well as solutions. Leaders, very often your best sources for scanning the external environment are the most junior members of your organization. Listen to what they are saying!
Act With Integrity
Very simply, the most certain way to kill any change initiative is to talk about the importance of change but to act in ways that support the status quo. Every action of senior leaders and change sponsors will be scrutinized unforgivingly. Leaders must be the models of change or they will surely kill the change before it ever starts.
Start a Fire
Kotter explains that crisis forces individuals to re-evaluate the status quo and consider new alternatives. Sometimes leaders need to create a “burning platform” to generate such a crisis. This can be achieved in a number of ways: goals that cannot be achieved through current business practices, gathering “eye-opening” data from customers and partners, and identifying external conditions and trends that threaten the company’s very existence.
Successful change leaders know the job of creating urgency is never done. Kotter says, “urgency leads to success leads to complacency.” It is natural for people, once they have succeeded, to rest into a new comfort zone and sense of status quo. It is at this time that leaders need to remember, “if it ain’t broke, break it!“
1: Leading Change and The Heart of Change (with co-author Dan Cohen) both published by Harvard Business School Press.