Sense of Urgency

Generally refers to communicating to an individual or team that it's imperative to act promptly, decisively and without delay.

In the business context, "a sense of urgency" generally refers to communicating to an individual or team that it's imperative to act promptly, decisively and without delay. The phrase can be applied in the context of leadership and management (self- or not), or in the field of marketing (influence), sales (negotiation) or HRM (coaching people). Sense of Urgency is essentials for change and learning. Without Sense of Urgency, there will be no change or continuous learning

Kotter define Sense of Urgency as a combination of change in thought, feeling and actual behavior. The fundamental reason we need urgency is because the rate of change is going up. Everybody says that and very few people believe it. If you look at the data, all the way from number of patents filed, M&A activity, all kinds of global activity – it’s going up like that. It’s not even linear. And the faster the world moves, the more you need to change. And what we’ve found again and again is that right at the beginning of successful change, you get a sense of urgency going. And if you don’t, everything slows down, everything’s tougher, everything’s more frustrating. Hence rate of change is up, this is very important.

Today at school, 95% of the curriculum focus on thinking and only 5% on feelings and behavior. The reason why 80-90% of changes in the workplace fails, are that feelings (Emotional Intelligence) and behavior is not a part of the process. The emotional part of the brain ("the limbic system") is positioned closer to brain-center that controls the behavior. Therefore, it would have been more powerful to focus 60-70% on feelings and 30-40% focus on thinking in order to create changes in behavior. The emotional brain is connected to experience (memory-center - Hippocampus) and "rational brain" (short-time memory) is connected to knowledge. Experience is more powerful than knowledge when it come to changes in organizational and individual behavior, due to longer history (long-time memory capacity).

In the book - The Road Ahead, Bill Gates said that a secret to Microsoft success is that the employees always think of themselves to be in the losing side, and this makes them strive to be number one everyday. This attitude creates a sense of urgency which makes them work harder (difficulty - Sense of Urgency technique) to survive in the highly competitive environment of IT industry.

In a recent blog from Vineet Nayar, former CEO at HCL, an Indian IT company,talks about: "Speed Kills, Slow is fast". He says: "Like developmental challenges, most managerial issues are complex and have deep-rooted human emotions associated with them. A Niyamgiri mountain lies at the heart of most situations we executives deal with. Speed is important, but if we can pause for a moment, we will hear the heart beating — and make decisions that people will implement twice as fast as they otherwise would have”. Vineet Nayar has a very good point: deep-rooted emotions are associated with changes (development challenges). Sense of Urgency is an agent to make changes, warming up the Emotional Brain and prepare the rational brain - something is going to happen!

Dr john Sullivan said back in 2014: "It is no longer the big established firms that dominate the small ones … it’s the fast and adaptive firms that now dominate the slower firms”. In contrast, firms like Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon that are “built for speed” have grown and prospered because of that ability to move fast. Firms like Kodak, MySpace, Good Guys, Blockbuster, and Blackberry they avoid moving fast because they fear it may result in unnecessary risks and too many costly errors". These firms have lost their Sense of Urgency and Curiosity, the two most important Emotional brain "heaters".

How can you create Sense of Urgency among people or employees? There are several techniques you can use and you have already heard about 1 of them; difficulty:
Scarcity. The scarcity bias states that when the countdown biases is the symbol of passing time - the clock is ticking. Difficulty to make it difficult for people to act. The theory of effort justification states that people value something greater if they worked for it harder. If people have to work hard to take action, then their urgency level automatically goes up (warming up the emotional part of the brain, starts building networks of neurons and prepare the rational brain for decision to make) in order to overcome the difficulty and accomplish the objective. Loss aversion is the human tendency to avoid losing things (anything). In fact, the desire not to lose something is greater than the desire to gain something. Hence, it is better to not lose $5 than to find $5. Competition. People love a good competition. Competitive situations are prime opportunities to unleash the urgency instinct and get people to act. Online games or sharing contests easily provoke a sense of urgency in the participants. Responsiveness instinct. People like to think of themselves as prompt and responsive. They act in a way that reinforces this belief. Takeaway. When you threaten to take an offer away, people are more likely to act in a hurry.

In order to analyze your Sense of urgency, TalEction has developed a Sense of Urgency awareness test. The results will tell you:

Level of UrgencyDescription
HighLoss of self-control, dutifulness, self-discipline, achievement striving, competitive, thrustful.
LowProcrastination, positive emotions, gregariousness, angry hostility, depression.

Take a BIG 5 test and compare your awareness results with your BIG 5 results. Do you have a Sense of Urgency, at what level?

Sense of Urgency (SU) and BIG-5:

  1. Scarcity: low Neuroticism (loss of self-control) increases SU, low Conscientiousness (low self-discipline/procrastination) reduces SU
  2. Difficulty (working hard): High dutifulness, self-discipline, achievement striving increase SU
  3. Loss aversion (LA): Extraversion, a trait positively associated with risk, reduces LA. Neuroticism, which has a negative association with risk behaviors, increases LA*
  4. Competition: Low Accomodation (Agreeableness - A4) increase SU
  5. Responsiveness instinct: High Conscientiousness, low Neuroticism, high Agreeableness (E1 - thrust) increase SU.
  6. Takeaway: self-control failure, low neuroticism increases SU.

* Gneezy and Potters (1997), Haigh/List (2005), Norman (1963).

What is Sense of Urgency?

How to improve?

Book: John Kotter: Sense of Urgency

Sense of Urgency is one out of 5 most important skills for the future: Curiosity, Assertiveness, Grit, Empathy, Sense of Urgency – CAGES.

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