Establish urgency

A parable tells of a bird that lived on a barren tree in a desert. Too fearful to find a better home, he lived a meager life. One day lightning struck the tree, which caught fire and forced the bird to flee. The bird then reached an oasis filled with water, food, and other birds as company.

The lesson is that sometimes it takes danger to motivate movement to a better state.

Most companies we come across recognize they are similarly stuck on their tree, worried they are missing a better future, but too fearful to move on.

To motivate your organization to look forward, you must move it to a state of discontent. You must establish the “burning platform,” creating urgency.

Research into Entrepreneurial Intensity (EI) – a measure of the degree to which your people exhibit innovativeness, pro-activity, and a willingness to take risk – shows that higher levels of EI lead to faster growth, higher profits, greater shareholder value creation, and improved economic value added (EVA). Increasing your EI requires you establish a sense that your environment is uncertain.

If your people see the environment as uncertain, they break out of complacency. They begin to exhibit openness to change, a future orientation and awareness of external innovations, and they deliver more incremental and radical innovation. Urgency drives competitiveness.

But too much urgency has the opposite effect. If you turn up the heat too high, people grow scared, they withdraw and stick their heads in the sand. Innovation – both incremental and radical – evaporates.

The key then is to establish the right level of discontent. Not too hot. Not too cold.

We have been working with some clients on establishing just the right, healthy degree of urgency. We’ve pored through the research and found three insights that can help you urge your organization forward.

Recognize three blockages
You must recognize that there are three blockages that can prevent your company from responding to changes to the environment. In her outstanding book The Agility Advantage, Amanda Setili lays them out clearly:

  • First there is the risk that your people will be unable to observe and make sense of changes in the market. She calls this Market Agility. You can remove this barrier by building long-term scenarios that are compelling but understandable.
  • Second is the risk they will not be able to make firm decisions about how to react to change. She calls this Decision Agility. You can remove this barrier by, having defined your scenarios, thinking through what decisions you can make now regardless of which scenario will unfold.
  • Having made a decision, third is the risk that they are unable to take the right action. She calls this Execution Agility. You can address this by ensuring your strategic intent is well understood so that the thousands of decisions they make move you in a common direction.

Overcome the two reasons we have difficulty making sense of the future
The future is actually not that hard to see. The problem is that we tend to look only at part of the picture, overlooking the totality of the factors that will determine the future. There are two reasons for this:

  • Overlooking concepts: As we’ve written before, the speed at which you adopt new concepts restrains innovation more than technology. Uber and Airbnb are transforming their industries not because they discovered technology before others, but because they adopted a concept we call “coordinate the uncoordinated” early. What concepts are shaping your future?
  • Not seeing the snowmobile: John Boyd was arguably one of the greatest fighter pilots of all time. He had a running bet that if he got into a practice dogfight with you, he would have you in his sights within 90 seconds. He never lost his bet. He explained his success this way. Imagine a pair of skis. Imagine the treads of a tank. Imagine the handlebars of a bicycle. Put them together and what do you have? The person who sees a “snowmobile” first wins. Just as a good fighter pilot is able to rapidly pull together different sources of data – change in altitude, wind direction, rotation of enemy airplane – and create a mental image of what is going on, you must be able to combine seemingly unrelated concepts and trends and see the resulting new reality. Take emerging concepts and trends and ask, “What new picture do these create when combined?”

Ensure your organization is broadly living your future reality
In the old top-down, hierarchical, lock-and-load world, you could have senior leaders understand the future and dictate actions down from above. But in today’s intrapreneurial, open organization, the boss no longer dictates. Your strategy, direction, and future are determined by the decisions people make every day.

To ensure people are making decisions aligned to the future, you must ensure they profoundly understand the future. To achieve that state of broad and deep understanding, you should involve them in the process of defining the scenarios that will determine your success. Make your future-defining, scenario-planning, trend-analysis effort (whatever method you use) a collaborative, company-wide conversation. Make it an emotional, rather than purely intellectual, exercise.

Conclusion
So to ensure you engender the right level of discontent to move your organization into the future with intensity, take three steps:

  1. Address all three blockages: making sense of the environment, deciding what to do, and taking action.
  2. Assess emerging concepts (inside and outside of your industry) then combine them with trends to see the bigger picture (some call this mosaic thinking).
  3. Involve your people in the process.
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