A Sense of Urgency – John P. Kotter Book Summary

A Sense of Urgency – John P. Kotter | Free Book Summary

A Sense of Urgency – John P. Kotter

John Kotter shows in his book what is missing in nearly all organizations today: a sense of urgency, that attitude that leads people to use opportunities and avoid pitfalls, to purge low-priority activities and move faster and smarter in a rapidly evolving economy.

Producing large-scale change


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You may be aware that your organization needs change. You may even know what the change should be: a new strategy, a reorganization, or a new IT system. However, change comes too slowly, or the implementation comes late and with much frustration.

The problem is complacency. We underestimate its power and prevalence. It is even in places where people would deny it. They continue with the past norm and think they know what to do. But in a fast-changing world, complacency can cause disaster.

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The false solution

Managers often think they have found the solution when they see lots of energetic activity, where people run from meeting to meeting, prepare presentations, and engage in an endless list of activities.

This false sense of urgency is not driven by a determination to win but by pressures that create anxiety and anger. It can drain people of energy.

The real solution is a true sense of urgency

A real solution does not involve running from meeting to meeting or creating a huge list of trivial activities. True urgency focuses on critical issues driven by a deep determination to win.

There are four tactics we can use to counter complacency and instil a culture with a true sense of urgency:

  • Make external problems and opportunities visible
  • Behave with urgency every day
  • Find opportunities in crisis
  • Deal with the No-Nos

Make external threats and opportunities visible

When organisations don’t attend to external threats, they will eventually become complacent and blind towards them.

As a first step, leaders should be proactive in collecting information.

Lower-level personnel are often the closest to the customer and will know what is happening on the outside, so listen closely when you interact with them.

Collect data. Evaluate the competition. Talk to the customers.

Bring outsiders in. Invite consultants, vendors, and customers to share their knowledge of your organization.

Share your information

Collecting information is insufficient to spark a sense of urgency. Therefore, it is vital to share the information.

Tell a compelling story. Dry facts may appeal to the mind, but they are not enough to appeal to the hearts of the people in your organization. A good way to spread outside information is through the power of video and storytelling.

The visuals your employees see can produce a certain message. Ensure you convey a message of outside awareness and urgency. Show your position within the market, what your competition is doing, and the progress of your ongoing projects.

Behave with urgency every day

Acting with urgency has to do with clarity and purpose. Be specific with everything you do. 

Create an action that is alert, externally oriented, and aimed at winning. Make some progress every day, and continually purge low value-added activities. Cancel projects that have become distractions.

Find opportunities in crisis

Great leaders know that a crisis has the opportunity to create an atmosphere of true urgency. With good leadership, a crisis can be used to wake people up from their passive routines.

Make the crisis visible, specific, and big enough to require creative action. Carefully watch how your organization reacts, what plans are being developed, and how quickly they are implemented.

Deal with the No-Nos

The NoNo is someone who is armed with reasons why the current situation is fine, why the problems others see don’t exist, and why you need more data before moving into action.

A no-no is not the same as a skeptic. A skeptic is essential to point out poor ideas but can become a huge supporter if convinced that they are wrong.

Mistakes when dealing with NoNos

Don’t attempt to co-opt them, as it is impossible to convert a NoNo.

Don’t ignore a NoNo. They may organize an active resistance against your initiative.

How to deal with NoNos:

  • Distract them
  • Eliminate them
  • Call them out on their behaviour.

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