The Urgent Enterprise

Jim Kouzes

[***Editor’s note: Tom Peters asked colleagues to guest-author his column while he was traveling abroad. Tom returned a month later to resume his duties.***]

“I think an institution should have a sense of urgency,” IBM Chairman Lou Gerstner recently told Fortune magazine. Eastman Kodak Chairman Kay Whitmore echoed that conviction at the 1993 annual shareholders meeting: “A shared sense of urgency” is now running through the company, he promised.

But if urgency is the new watchword, what urgent actions signal that we’ve heard the call? Here are six ways to get your organization to heed the immediate needs of the marketplace.

– Defy the verdict. When disease or disaster threatens, people who beat the odds are not consumed by self-pity and regret. They acknowledge reality but reject the notion that they’re doomed.

Take, for example, the reaction of the late Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart. Despite a serious early setback at his first Ben Franklin store, he went on to become America’s richest entrepreneur. “It’s not just a corny saying that you can make a positive out of most any negative if you work at it hard enough,” he said. “I’ve always thought of problems as challenges, and this one wasn’t any different.”

To instill a sense of urgency, you’ve got to defy the pessimists, paint a positive image of the future, and give people hope.

– Make something happen. Those who succeed, even under adverse circumstances, become passionately engaged and quickly mobilize into action.

Author and editor Michael Korda recently reported on the legendary 86-year-old Hollywood super agent, Irving Swifty Lazar. Lazar says, “Sometimes I wake up in the morning and there’s
nothing doing, so I decide to make something happen by lunch.”

One of the best prescriptions for business malaise is action. Don’t give people time to stew over difficulties just get them moving immediately.

– Make challenging authority safe. The Muser Principle of airline safety states, “Modern aircraft and operational techniques have become dangerously safe. Therefore, safety needs a healthy dose of disagreement in the cockpit.”

Authoritarian leaders only intensify danger. Air safety depends on whether those in the cockpit can talk back to the boss. So does business survival.

If you want people to act with a shared sense of urgency, make certain they feel safe in challenging authority.

– Be flexible and informal. Present economic and social situations are highly volatile. No one can accurately predict what will happen next. Victory will go to those agile enough to adapt to shifting conditions.

Hierarchy is the least flexible organization design and the worst for urgent times. When uncertainty increases, impersonal, bureaucratic forms must quickly give way to more personal and collaborative approaches, according to research by Professors Andre Delbecq, Andrew Van de Ven, and Richard Koenig.

If you want to develop a shared sense of urgency you must make your institution more agile. First, forget the notion that there’s one best way, and grant people more autonomy. Tear down the functional walls, break the chain of command, get out from behind the desk and talk to people face to face.

– Learn discipline. Urgent situations require group informality, but they also demand personal responsibility. It takes much more skill and self-confidence to improvise than to read a script. True freedom is the result of first learning discipline, then acting autonomously.

That means we’d better be constantly training. As Jack Stack, president and CEO of Springfield Remanufacturing Corp. puts it, “(T)here is no security in ignorance.” That’s why every SRC employee can read an income statement and a balance sheet. The results have paid off. Since 1983 the value of SRC’s stock has increased 18,200 percent.

– Build trust. People are not inclined to take big risks with those they do not know. Trust is the glue that holds the urgent enterprise together. It forms the basis of the openness so essential when we’re moving quickly and instinctively. But trust builds slowly through personal interactions.

-Begin by making a commitment to start every day with five-minute chats with your colleagues. Drop by and ask how things are going, listen to complaints, be open about yourself, and offer a shoulder to lean on. Encourage others to do the same.

Intimacy is a necessary condition for a healthy life at home and at work. We have more faith in the future when we have faith in each other. If we are going to fulfill our obligations to shareholders, customers, vendors, communities, and employees, we better get to know each other.

Jim Kouzes is coauthor and co-founder with Barry Posner of The Leadership Challenge. They are also coauthors of Credibility, both books published by Jossey-Bass.

(C) 1993 Jim Kouzes.

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