The need to communicate urgency during change


This paper explores the topic of communicating urgency during change with a focus on the need to communicate urgency. I have researched papers that discuss this topic in detail and also provide examples of the successes of real world organisations that went through change and had understood the need of a sense of urgency. From the analyse in this essay I will argue that in order for an organisation to have a successful change they must first create and communicate a sense of urgency to its employees and stakeholders and they must also communicate this through effectively. With no urgency for an organisation to change, its employees and stakeholder can become complacent and happy with the status quo and then in most cases by the time they realise they need to change. It is too late. Balogun and Hope Hailey (2004) report that around 70% of all change programs fail. I will now show how communicating urgency is crucial for a successful change.

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There are a number of emergent change models on change management that include Kanter et al.'s Ten Commandments for executing change (1992), Kotter's eight step process for successful organisational transformation (1996)and Luecke's seven steps (2003), see Appendix 1 for details. A similarity between Kanter et al.'s (1992) and Kotter (1996) is they both have a step in their model for creating or establishing a sense of urgency. Luecke's (2003) model tries to combine the two emergent approaches but does not list urgency as a step itself for successful change.

A trend in today's global economy is the growing amount of significant and on many occasions distressing change occurring in organisations in the last couple of decades. This trend is only going to continue as a result of our ever increasing use of e-commerce. Organisations should already be at the Web 3.0 Collaborative stage to retain business and should already be targeting Web 4.0 which is the Integration stage, see Appendix 2. Many organisations are still playing catch up to get a presence on the web let alone look at online shopping or interaction websites. It must be understood that the need to communicate urgency is just one part of the planning process of change management and is not just needed to get change in motion but sometimes is needed throughout change programs to keep momentum going (Dutton & Duncan 1987).

Literature Review

Change can come about in a number of different ways; the way in which it does occur will greatly affect the need to communicate urgency. Todnem (2005) argues successful management of change is a highly required skill however most change is currently reactive. From Burnes (1996 : 13) argument that success is less dependent on detailed plans and projections then on reaching an understanding of the complexity of issues concerned it can be suggested the emergent change approach is more concerned with change readiness and facilitating for change then to provide pre-planned steps for each change project and initiative. This suggestion of being concerned with change readiness supports communicating urgency as the urgency would function as a source of inertia to encourage an effective change process.

Using Pilkington Australasia as an example who at the time had a core business of

The manufacture, and distribution of flat and safety glass, coated glass mirror and ceramic decorated glass. From this case it can be seen that a company in crisis still may not be enough by itself to create urgency to change (Graetz, 2000) it needs to be communicated effectively. When Pilkington's three major client industries collapsed due to the recession in 1990 the command and control bureaucracy was still firmly in place, and management had not seen this crisis as a way to communicate the need for change. Pilkington's workforce was aware that there were difficulties being experienced but as this had not been communicated properly they were still unprepared for merging of businesses and rationalising of the workforces which happened afterwards.

The methods in which management communicate urgency can affect the success or failure of the change. Pilkington's method was the appointment of a new General Manager HR. This helped relight a sense of urgency by public admission by senior management of the difficulties that were ahead of Pilkington (Graetz 2000). This supports that change efforts need the support from senior management.

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Another case study that provides an example of a failed change as a result of failing to communicate urgency was a bellwether in the US manufacturing arena. Its decision was to spin off its subsidiary manufacturers of goods (Bernerth 2004). A survey was conducted using Armenakis et al.'s (1999) 5 components to change and of the 115 responses it was seen that the change was that of a paper change. They were operating under a new business name and the job did not change yet there were still strong negative reactions. The two lowest averages of the surveys were Discrepancy and Appropriateness readiness for change. The employees did not see this as a necessary change but a change that has only brought on unanswered questions and uneasiness. The 2nd lowest average being appropriateness which again the respondents wondered why the change was needed as the actual job at hand did not change.

This survey shows that they did not see the reason for change, if urgency for change was communicated to the full extent explaining the external competitive pressures and management believing in the change there might not have been such a negative response and this communication would have better prepared the employees to be a driving force for continued change.

Motivation of employees plays a crucial part to get change in motion. How well a leadership figure can motivate a workforce can greatly affect the change outcome (Gill 2001). Motivating an employee to change when they don't see a reason to change in the first place can be long and on many occasions as soon has whatever was motivating them to change stops or ceases to be a force they can revert back to their prior behaviour. Therefore to be successful the leader needs to make the current environment 'seem' more dangerous than the unknown to motivate them to change to the new requirements. This will mean there will be much less of the workforce reverting back to the old behaviour due to this 'Danger' (Gill 2001).

In the paper from Dutton & Duncan (1987) they show most empirical research is focused on why change has failed due and not on the success. Dutton & Duncan (1987) use the term 'Strategic Issues' to illustrate the events or progress which have not had a decision made in which the 'event' has the potential to change the upcoming or current strategy. The interpretation of the strategic issue is called Strategic Issue Diagnosis (SID) which can be seen in Appendix 3. This model shows the Assessment for Urgency as a key part in creating a momentum for change. The model puts forward the urgency and feasibility assessments assist in applying meaning and clarity to an issue which is needed in facilitating change.

As already discussed there are a number of models that have been created over the past few decades to lead and teach change plans in businesses. We have already identified Kanter et al.'s Ten Commandments for executing change (1992), Kotter's eight step process for successful organisational transformation (1996) and Luecke's seven steps (2003). Mento et al (2002) also adds General Electric (GE)'s seven-step change acceleration process to this list. This draws on from the other models but based on the change process at an actual Fortune 500 defence industry firm.

This paper highlights the starting point of a change effort should be "what needs to be changed or what new product should be introduced or what particular innovation might bring a significant lead over competitors" (Mento et al 2002). These needs should be arisen through creative tension. Creative tension is a way to communicate a sense of urgency. Senge (1990) advises that creative tension develops from the organisation seeing where we want to be, and telling the truth about where we are now, our current state. The difference or gap between the two creates a tension and upsets the status quo and supports the urgency of the need to change.

The change projects of Deutsche Lufthansa Airline Group (Lufthansa) has effectively altered its profile over the 13 years between 1991 and 2004 (Bruch et al, 2005) which includes surviving the collapse of the airline industry after the September 11 Terrorist attacks in 2001 when many other airlines went bankrupt (A REFERENCE POSSIBLY). The Lufthansa "D-Check - Maintaining Leadership" change program is evidence that urgency is a key part of a successful change initiative. A reason for its successes was their understanding that change projects have to make a sense from the beginning. The change has to feel right for the organisation and also have the necessary sense of urgency (Bruch et al, 2005). Ghoshal (2004) goes on to state "the required urgency for initiating a change can be achieved through a large number of visible, tangible activities". Using visible tangible activities ensures momentum is not lost during a change process.

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The research of Narine & Persaud (2003) explores organisational change efforts in healthcare aimed at improving quality through Total Quality Management (TQM). Their research findings indicate that the change programs have not fulfilled their aims in improving service delivery. Their analysis is aimed to provide insights into improving the chances of successful change management using the healthcare industry as its foundation. A key factor that has come through from this research is gaining commitment to change through ensuring organizational readiness for change and surfacing dissatisfaction with the present state which is another case supporting the communication of urgency during change.

In the absence of an observable issue or crisis, it is difficult to see why there is any need of change, for this reason the managers have to communicate a sense of urgency about the change by encouraging feelings of dissatisfaction with the present position. An important factor in the failed attempts of adopting TQM was the absence of a sense of urgency being communicated by management to those in the frontline Huq and Martin (2000) discovered. Kachinowski (1997) offers methods of communicating urgent needs that can include forces on gaming ascendance in healthcare background such as accountability, benchmarking, performance measurement and evidence-based decision-making that will drive the need for change. The employees/stakeholders should have tools for recognising consequences of not changing and these consequences need to be easily identified.

Glaxo Wellcome (Now Glaxo Smith Kline) one of the large pharmaceutical companies had the need for a significant change program as the demands for greater efficiencies in drug development, changes in the regulatory environment, sudden rising health care costs and significant progress in biotechnology were having a major impact on their current working practices (James & Ward 2001). One of the reasons why Glaxo Wellcome succeeded in their change was through the use of a multinational dispersed team to deliver the Project. This team identified several motives for change that all stressed the urgent need to change and sustain a competitive edge with reduced product cycle times. Two of the motives James & Ward (2001) recorded from their research included 1) The customer interface becoming more complex, and it being essential that the needs of each customer segment are clear and administered in a targeted approach, and 2) Many external changes are making carrying out testing more complex such as regulatory requirements and higher demands on the medical personnel. This case is another real life scenario where urgency played a part in the success of the change initiative.

The idea of 'Creative Tension' has been illustrated briefly to this point; it will now be discussed in more detail. Creative tension can be used as a way of creating a sense of urgency as it communicates a 'gap' in between the current state and the future desired state. Its aim is for stakeholders to be aiming for the desired state because they want this future state because of what it can offer. In a way it leads them forward as they move more independently as opposed to pushing them by creating dissatisfaction with the current state. The principle of creative tension is evident in Martin Luther King's 'I had a Dream' famous speech. He repetitively endeavoured to "dramatise the shameful current conditions" of racism so people could not ignore them any longer (Senge 1990). This speech may be old but its effect on the world has been great and is still used today to motivate change. What we can learn from Martin Luther King Jr. speech is the depiction of the current state is just as important as setting the future desired state, we need the two ends of the spectrum to really visualise we do not want to be in the current state.

Motivation to change only when a situation is bad enough to change is not enough. The motivation in this type of scenario would generally always be an external force. The use of creative tension crafts motivation intrinsically and will normally occur sooner and more efficiently (Senge 1990).

In the case of Sears a chain of department stores in the US that at the time was experiencing difficulties, few employees had any sense of power, only felt resignation. Directives came from above and employees did their best to follow and obey. The previous CEO tried to correct extremes of decentralisation but then went too far and once-powerful store managers turned into caretakers and lost knowledge as was no longer in a power position. Experts from headquarters would visit the stores and merchandise as if they understood the local market better then the local employees (Pascale, Millemann et al 1997).

When Martinez took over as the new CEO in 1992 he knew he had to implement drastic changes and urgent. To generate a sense of urgency, Martinez set difficult goals that included quadrupling its margins to achieve industry parity, reverse it loss and market share and improve customer satisfaction by 15% all within two years. These difficult goals meant management had to think and plan. No one had the answers so by Martinez creative productive level of stress and urgency this was enough to alter thinking and behaviour so cooperatively the business was able to craft resolutions (Pascale, Millemann et al 1997).


John Kotter's (1996) book "leading change" has been the foundations of his 8 steps to successful transformational change. Most literature that was reviewed has all mentioned his 1st step of 'creating a sense of urgency' as a step that must be taken. It has become evident from the articles that creating a sense of urgency is crucial but that alone is not enough. It is how this urgency is communicated to the stakeholders. The case of Pilkington Australasia, they had a serious crisis but the workforce had not been made aware of the serious effects this crisis could have on the organisation and as a result were not prepared for the merging of the businesses.

Managers need to find ways to ensure urgency is communicated dramatically and broadly, particularly when it concerns a crisis, potential crisis or opportunities that will not last for long (Kotter 1996). Motivation is an essential step in getting momentum for change occurring and change requires the support from many of the organisations employees (Dutton & Duncan 1987).

Over 50% of companies manage to fail this first step in leading a change (Kotter 1996). Complacency is a key reason why organisations fail in getting change to occur (). Top management on many occasions take too lightly the difficulties of getting people out of their comfort zones they have become accustomed to. The case of Sears and their new CEO Martinez communicated that there was an urgency to change, this very visible sign of a new leadership signalled change (Pascale, Millemann et al 1997), this would also be effective for change in a department or division of an organisation.

This first phase can sometime be taken as an easy stage, but do not get caught up in that assumption. This first phase sets in place the flow of actions of the change initiative. If the urgency to change is not communicated effectively and the business does not have enough support from all of its stakeholders the change can fail before it has begun. Communicating urgency when business is going well is a difficult task, but on the positive there are more resources to support the change where on the opposite side making losses is an obvious issue and easily seen, but also gives less room to move are resources are more tight (Kotter 1996).

A key point that has come through in many journal articles is to make the current situation more dangerous than the moving into the unfamiliar. Kotter (1996) even went on to explain a CEO of a company manufactured the largest accounting loss in the company's history. This is all evidence that how management communicate urgency is crucial to a successful organisational change.

Conclusion & Further Research

There are many parts of communicating urgency from how what the urgency is to how it is communicated. Complacency is one of the biggest dangers when it comes to organisational change. Simply due to conservatism, a lack of pressure and unawareness of the issues complacency leads an organisation to act the way it has simply because that is how it has always acted (Kotter 2008). Kotter's research over the years has been the basis for many other academics research and it is very difficult to find literature that does not base their argument on his. This shows that Kotter has got it right or that no one is bold enough to question his findings.

From the literature researched I support Kotter's model that urgency needs to be communicated as a first phase for organisational change. It is visible from findings that organisations that have had success in large scale changes have expressed in one or more forms the irrefutable need (urgency) to change the way its business is being carried out.

There are still areas for further research. Fewer than 15 of Kotters researched companies have successfully transformed themselves (Kotter 2006). This shows that there is still much work to be done. No one set of best practice can be used on every organisation. Organisations are unique living entities with unique cultures and structures and reactions may not be the same. Therefore it is crucial that any change is uniquely implemented into the organisation at hand and exploit its strengths and weaknesses to use this energy to support change. Due to this studies need to be continued so we will always have up to date and current data on the most recent changes occurring in the environment today.

A specific area of interest that if a large contributor to change today would be the internet and how this is changing the way organisations conduct business. The literature lacked specifics on those who are more likely to resist change. We could make assumptions that it's the older generations such as the blue collar Baby Boomers that are resisting technological or e-commerce changes but until research is conducted these assumptions are not valid or reliable. Understanding what age groups are possibly more likely to resist change will enable change leaders to ensure they reduce or eliminate these resisting forces to increase the likelihood of a transformational change to be successful.