One of the things I often press for in my role as a board member and investor is a greater “sense of urgency” in our portfolio companies. The founders and CEOs, it turns out, are hungry for that even more than I am. It is a collective frustration.

So when I hear a suggestion on driving urgency, I take notice. I got this one from a CEO who I’ve worked closely with for years.

I find many business books to be fairly useless or at best irrelevant to my situation but I read John Kotter’s book “A Sense of Urgency” over the weekend and it was excellent. I highly recommend it. 

The best thing about the book is that it creates a common definition of what “urgency” and “complacency” mean and even cautions against creating “false urgency,” which is a lot of anxious frenetic activity without no forward motion. False urgency is just as bad as complacency.
I plan to read this book and if you are hungry for more urgency in your organization, I suggest you do as well.

Comments (Archived):

  1. Vitomir Jevremovic

    Nowadays everything feels urgent and hectic. Planning and strategy are abandoned for lean, sprint and now. Hope the books gives some perspective and solutions. Will read, thanx

  2. William Mougayar

    Great reminder for an important trait. Yet, it is success that often brings complacency, which is the ennemy of urgency. Many large companies become internally focused & they lose that sense of urgency.

    1. creative group

      William Mougayar:Your statement reminded us of the Iconic companies that became complacent in their space and became extinct.AmocoBlockbusterBordersEnronOldsmobilePanAmWoolworth

      1. awaldstein

        there is complacency and lack of vision both.i left creaf not because they were complacent but because we had saturated a worldwide market and the founder wasn’t willing to evolve the positioning and the core of the business.what looks like complacency to the outside is often something else.

        1. LE

          And today it’s a penny stock:http://finance.yahoo.com/qu…I remember in the 90’s my ex brother in law (who worked for Apple) telling me about how Apple was building certain functionality onto the motherboard. At the time I worked for either Supermac or Rasterops, both which went bust.

  3. LaVonne Reimer

    Fastest way to lose a team is false urgency. For me the best urgency moments come from customers or partners, or in recent weeks the conviction that we are doing something that could seriously contribute to solving the problem of too much wealth and power in too few hands. I will check out the book. Thanks for bringing it to our attention!

  4. Wyatt Brown

    “Competent CEO understands that the days, and even hours count.” Sam Altman. How to Start a Startup. 🙂

  5. creative group

    Fred:Thanks for the book club suggestion. We read business titles as people follow fiction authors and series. We will only engage in fiction on a movie screen. Our quality reading is reserved for non fiction business titles. All business titles and authors are definitely not equal.

  6. John Francis Charles

    I also thought this book from HBR was great, although perhaps more for larger organizations: Rapid Transformation by Behnam N. Tabrizi https://www.amazon.com/Rapi

  7. Ben Mackinnon

    This is a great reminder, especially in the holiday season when it’s so easy for a team to get complacent. I was discussing this exact topic at dinner last night, so have already purchased the book and looking forward to a new weekend read!

  8. awaldstein

    Creating a sense of urgency is what closers do in sales.

    1. jason wright

      “put that coffee down”

        1. jason wright


    2. LE

      Agree. Reason to get off the fence, make a decision and prioritize the decision over other tasks at hand. Can be done with pricing (sales or discounts) merchandise selection (scarcity) or a host of other ways.

    1. Joe Cardillo

      Pretty much every day I ask myself “what can I actually execute on here.”The thing that’s hardest to get to is how to be a person of both vision and action. If you’re constantly at work you have to be thinking “how does this information that’s coming in help me connect to the bigger vision, and am I aligned.”In some ways it’s typical consultant-speak, but it’s subtle and has to be done by the founder / leader. And the only way you get better is to practice it.

      1. Twain Twain

        I think of myself as a bee and an ant.The bee cross-pollinates (ideas) towards making the plant (product) blossom.The ant bears N times its own body weight (workload) to get to its destination. https://uploads.disquscdn.c

  9. LIAD

    I used to watch Dual Survival on Discovery. It aways paired a veteran Marine with a hippy survivalist and sent them out to the ends of the earth to survive and invariably argue about strategy and tactics.The Marines would all have the same saying: Move with Purpose. Was akin to their own personal rallying call.Whatever they were doing they always did it ‘with purpose’. Fast and determined, looking ahead, building on momentum. Always productive, even when at rest.Urgency – denotes frenzy and burnout. If everything is always urgent nothing is.But, move with purpose. That has longevity and real power behind it.

    1. Jess Bachman

      Great show. Dave Canterbury is my hero. Cody too. Lots to learn from both of them. They both were highly skilled at the objective, just different methods and routes.

      1. LE

        Try Highway Thru Hell on Netflix. 4 seasons now available. I’ve been bing watching it.

        1. Jess Bachman

          Looks like Ice Road Truckers

          1. LE

            Much better than Ice Road Truckers which I’ve watched. It’s got more of a small business angle to it. For example constant problems with people working for main protagonist (Jamie Davis), a competitor (Al Quiring), Davis’s most important key man (Adam Gazzola) leaving. [1] Also the ironic fact that as a result of being on the tv all of the sudden someone else gets into his home turf and he has to expand to the oil sands region in Canada 700 miles away. Amazing what these guys do to earn a living.[1] As well as Davis’s lazy millenial stepson.

      2. LIAD

        the new teams, esp. season 9 – wawawiwa. make those guys look like girl scouts.

  10. Tom Labus

    It helps if you know this instinctively.

    1. jason wright

      The instinct of fear helps

      1. Tom Labus

        Big time

        1. jason wright

          We’re all running on the Human OS.

          1. Lawrence Brass

            no upgrades.

    2. LE

      A seat of the pants feel is always required. Otherwise someone who reads something in a book typically comes across as formulaic and not authentic. I see many examples of this in sales for example by inexperienced salesman who appear to have read a book or taken a course I am guessing. The last one that I ran into said “can you tell me what are the things that are important to you in…”. While that seems like a perfectly normal, obvious and good question that a salesman should be asking, the way it was delivered just screamed ‘you are being set up so I can hit your hot buttons and tailor my pitch’. (Hard to explain but I knew it when I heard it..) You want to find out what someone wants to hear sure but not in a way that let’s them know you are doing so.

      1. cavepainting

        Yes, being competent while also being human and authentic is a rare combination.

    3. Girish Mehta

      It helps to know instinctively ‘when’ to use this tool.There are tools that get sharpened every time you use them. Urgency is a tooI that gets blunted if you use it too often.Its most powerful if used sparingly. Found that to be true both when applied to others/teams, and inwardly to one’s own self.p.s. Not unlike how you use Stress as a tool to become fitter. Chronic Stress weakens you. Apply short-term stress in the right measure and time and you emerge stronger.

      1. jason wright

        After the strategy has been worked out.

  11. ErikSchwartz

    False urgency is worse than complacency because it burns people out while not accomplishing important stuff..

  12. daryn

    It is important to note that urgency and patience are not mutually exclusive.

  13. jason wright

    It’s urgency or emergency.

    1. Girish Mehta

      If thats the place you find yourself in….its a bad place to be in. Try to get out of there quickly. (I don’t mean ‘you’).It may be real in some situations, but its probably better to think of this as a false choice and work from there.

      1. jason wright

        Complacency is triage.

  14. Matt Zagaja

    I used to work on political campaigns where everything was urgent. There the main lesson I learned is that when everything is urgent, nothing is urgent. The best resource I ever encountered was Randy Pausch’s Time Management lecture: http://www.slideshare.net/g….

    1. SEB

      well said!

  15. Jess Bachman

    I’ll probably get around to reading this book as well I guess.

    1. JimHirshfield

      Urgent complacency there, I see.

    2. jason wright

      It’s not urgent.

  16. Semil Shah

    Urgency is often related to two elements: Time, and fear. We are afraid time may run out, so we want to run. The problem is, not everyone is being mindful of the clock.

    1. awaldstein

      Here’s the rub for me.#1 job is to never run out of money. That is a full time one.#1 job is to discover your market. That is a full time one.Startups where winning is defined by out-of-the-ballpark momentum, growth, profits are by definition whacko.I honestly don’t think there is a real pace that is not padded by worry on the executive side.

      1. Semil Shah

        Money is so easy people think they can always raise it.

        1. awaldstein

          Except of course that most every startup that fails (as in 70+% of them) can’t!

  17. andy_mcf

    You’ll enjoy the book. I read it several years ago and blogged about it. “The most compelling reason to read the book is to internalize the distinction between a true and a false sense of urgency. One is high in activity; the other high in achievement. One capitalizes on crises; the other is paralyzed by them.” More here: http://pivotpointsolutions….

  18. someone

    a clarifying question: if you as a board member are pushing for urgency and so are founders, who is not getting it, the employees?Perhaps part of the problem is that most employees have so much less equity than founders and investors that they bristle at being told to shatter their personal lives.I’ve often pushed founders as to why there is such an enormous dropoff in equity between founders and even early employees. Usually they shrug and say thats-how-it-goes.

    1. cavepainting

      this is exactly the reason why there is a big discrepancy between the motivation levels of founders vs. employees. In Silicon Valley, every talented developer or marketer seeks to form his or her own company, but that is not a smart strategy either.Fair and equitable distribution of equity, especially to early stage employees, is a real issue that is less addressed in the open, and has a deleterious effect on motivations and productivity.

  19. David A. Frankel

    Great post and reminder that “false urgency” can be a huge trap for small companies. Frantic running around without focus, discipline or thought is not urgency: it is wasting resources.I tell all of my teams that if they take a close look at successful, growing organizations, they will find they have these 3 attributes in common: accountability, communication, and urgency. If you ingrain those as the foundation to your operating philosophy, you will consistently achieve goals and objectives.

  20. Ken Greenwood

    Thanks for sharing. It’s next on my list.

  21. Kirsten Lambertsen

    I love the kind of urgency that comes from not being able to wait to do something. Like, when you’re newly in love and are on your way to meet that person for date. It can’t happen soon enough.That’s the kind of urgency culture one wants to have at their startup. We can’t wait to be with our product and then to share it with the world.

    1. Lawrence Brass

      I have been split doing ‘work for others’ and work for my company, and it always surprises me how I feel when it is its turn to get a few hours of my attention. You quite describe the feeling, it is love. 🙂

      1. Kirsten Lambertsen


  22. jason wright

    Then what’s the collective frustration?

  23. karen_e

    This past week I said goodbye to an organization I’ve been working with for four years. In my exit interview I pointed out the sense of urgency that they need. Not that I personally was so, so critical to the organization, but one person’s taking a stand and stepping aside has already helped them take the bull by the horns and straighten the course with a sense of “it must be done — now!”.

  24. Elizabeth H (Lisa) D

    It could be quite a useful book for me, thanks. I’m building my own business here at Morgan Stanley and appreciate any input/guidance/shared experiences.

  25. george

    Look forward to reading the book, I like the sound of a balanced approach; it’s really hard to drive a team or oraginzation at an intense pace for an indefinite period. Defining milestones early on is really critical to build effectiveness, they create measures for success, personal accomplishment, and help emotionally build trust and satisfaction. I’ve seen a few leaders lose credibility and further employee commitment when they overlook defining value points.

  26. Leo B

    Task switching causes lost production.

  27. asra

    hello i am new on disqus

  28. asra

    i am a indian and there is no one from india ,,,,,,,,,,and i wrote a story but there is no reponse

  29. pointsnfigures

    Yes it was.

  30. jason wright

    It was contempt.

  31. creative group

    Charlie Crystle:The assessment on Enron we agree with.But elements of Enron’s business model were legal and could have flourished if not for the criminal element and bad intentions. If Kenneth (Kenny) Lay career was reviewed he knew business .He just didn’t have a filter on engaging in the criminal and illegal.

  32. LE

    While there are examples of companies today that are trying hard not to be the next forgotten thing (having learned from history (one example might be google)) the truth is the only reason they can do that is because they have boatloads of profit from their primary line of work and are able to take on new risks. None of those companies mentioned (the ones that would be called complacent) were ever that super profitable and secure. Blockbuster in particular wasn’t in a position to be Netflix. And Walmart really had no motivation to be Amazon given how much money they blew through.Most important thing people forget is that what seems obvious in retrospect is not obvious or even affordable without venture capital (or stock market allowing losses (amazon)) which is spread over many bets and/or the type of profits that allow you to take big risks that payoff.By the way companies don’t become complacent the workforce ages and people become complacent especially if the dead wood isn’t forced out or is feeling to secure.

  33. pointsnfigures

    Worse, it was hubris

  34. LE

    Let a call slip into next week, you risk it getting rescheduled to another week.I’ve have a deal right now that is essentially on hold until the chief legal counsel returns from maternity leave. And it’s not like I couldn’t explore other avenues at that company it’s just that doing so involves certain risks that I don’t think are in the best interest of the people that I am doing work for.

  35. awaldstein

    I don’t see any other status quo honestly. There are different ways to handle it but you need to always have a bead on more capital and always have a bead on the market. And with both, a large portion of what happens is out of your control.

  36. jason wright

    Worse still, he wasn’t even young.

  37. Lawrence Brass

    Does the US stalls during summer? It happens here in Chile a lot.

  38. LE

    Totally feel the pain.I’ve told the story before of a guy that I hired to do legal work way back in y2k. When I found out he was single (he was about 40 at the time) and had no children the first thing I thought was ‘good that means I can get him at all weird hours (like Friday night) and I won’t hear family type excuses plus he won’t be leaving the house early to go to some soccer game’. Not that all people with families give excuses (I don’t I am always around 24×7) but most people operate with other obligations that they will tend to first and don’t want to be bothered with work during down time. I am heading out west on vacation at the end of the month and might stop by the office of the lawyer I’ve talked about because she will be returning from maternity leave. On my vacation. My wife will think that is fine and have no problem with it either. Likewise I can’t and don’t go anywhere where there isn’t internet access. We are not talking doing heavy work when away but merely being able to keep things humming.