In a previous post, I have challenged what I see as the mismatch between the complex social realities of everyday organizational life and the theme that runs through these two 'concept' albums. That is, Kotter's claim that successful organizational change can be brought about in a neatly-packaged, one-step-at-a-time, predictable way.
So how does this extended rendition of Track 1 from the album, A Sense of Urgency, stack up?
A tried and tested formula
Kotter's earlier works play well with those who are looking for popular, easy-listening type 'melodies'. His 'lyrics and tunes' are easy on the ear; and they promise managers a sure-fire way to escape from the stresses and strains of organizational change. The tracks are undemanding, in the sense that they don't call on managers to do anything fundamentally different from what they have done for years before - only to do it better and get it right.
For fans of Kotter, getting people to change their ways and 'sing from the same songsheet' is as easy as ABC - or at least as easy as Steps 1 to 8. And, for Kotter himself, this formula continues to deliver platinum-disc-level sales.
More of the same?
In many ways, the new 'single' follows this well-trodden path, with Kotter once again reprising his linear, eight-step process for bringing about change. But, buried within the familiar mix of engaging stories and do-this-and-you'll-get that prescriptions, there are some concessions to the more complex arrangements and grittier sounds that reflect the earthier, largely improvised and often underground music of everyday organizational life. And this makes a welcome - if surprising - change.
At several points in his 'sleeve notes' on A Sense of Urgency, he describes the part played by informal conversations and interactions in building momentum for change. For example, in relation to the lyric "urgency begets urgency", he says:
"... ultimately, it is often only a steadily growing wave of people behaving with real urgency each and every day that can conquer built-up cynicism and negativity - a real urgency that can start with one person, then, two, then ten, and so on."
In another example, to explain the lyric "use a crisis to create urgency, but watch out ...", he tells the story of how a small group of mid-level managers in a company began to meet to discuss how they could use a current crisis as an opportunity to make progress:
"The managers spoke of who was reacting, how and for what reasons. They agreed that one of the executive vice presidents seemed to see the situation as they did, and that led to a meeting with this man, and that subsequently led to a meeting with the CEO. That, in turn, led to more discussion with additional people...". And so on. "A long list of actions that should have been taken years before was finally initiated."
What goes unsaid in Kotter's notes is that both of these examples - and others - illustrate the powerful, informal dynamics of coalition formation, through which individual action mobilises collective action. And, equally importantly, these stories also show that action can be (and is) initiated anywhere, not just at the top. Other dimensions of the underlying, a-rational dynamics of organizations are also recognised (even if not acknowledged as such) through lyrics such as:
"behave with urgency every day" - raising awareness of the unavoidable impact of a leader's role modelling behaviours on others' actions, and
"deal with NoNos" - developing and implementing strategies to deal effectively with those who view changes as negative and who are actively working to frustrate them (although I would see this as part of a wider effort to build active coalitions of support for change).
So, despite his outwardly formulaic view of change leadership, Kotter's stories show that engaging with the hidden, messy and informal side of organizations is essential if leaders are to influence the outcomes that emerge in a deliberate way.
The central theme of A Sense of Urgency is captured in the lyric "increasing true urgency". Here Kotter positions this as the overarching goal, with complacency and what he calls "false urgency" as its 'ugly sisters'. Here:
A true sense of urgency is "Urgent activity: action which is alert, fast moving, focused externally on the important issues, relentless, and continuously purging irrelevant activities ..."
Complacency is "Unchanging activity: action which ignores an organization's new opportunities or hazards, focuses inward, does whatever has been the norm in the past ..."
A false sense of urgency is "Frenetic activity: meeting-meeting, writing-writing, going-going, projects-projects ...".
This is a useful way of thinking about these behaviours, with descriptions that all managers will recognise. The stories that Kotter uses to illustrate the differences, and the arguments that he employs to support his case, are interesting and ring true. Significantly, most of these illustrate the central part played by informal conversations in achieving the desired behaviours. Unfortunately this fundamental role that conversational interactions play in shaping the underlying dynamics of organizations passes by with little or no comment. As does the fact that most of the key interventions he describes take place outside the formal arrangements of the organization. And it is this failure to give full weight to the 'sharps and flats' of organizational life that ultimately disappoints.
From an informal coalitions perspective, organizations are seen as dynamic networks of self-organizing conversations. This places everyday conversations - both formal and informal - at the heart of organizational dynamics and makes these the primary focus of change-leadership practice.
Through their planned and unplanned interactions, people perceive, interpret and evaluate what is going on and decide how they are going to act. And it is from the dynamic interplay of 'local' (i.e. one-to-one and one-to-few) conversations that organization-wide outcomes emerge. In the present context, this means that it is solely through these everyday conversations and interactions that Kotter's desired outcome of "real urgency" will (or will not!) be realised. This is the case both in terms of the 'designed' elements of strategy and tactics that Kotter sets out, and the attributes of organizational culture that he sees as important in sustaining the desired sense of urgency.
The guts of organizational leadership
So everyday conversations and interactions are at the very guts of organizational leadership:
- In some cases, conversations become 'stuck' in repetitive patterns, fixed and unchanging. The dynamic that Kotter characterises as complacency, above, is one consequence of this dynamic.
- At the other extreme, some interactions become frenetic and chaotic, with minimal concession made to the give and take of healthy conversation. Here, the interactions lack real meaning and engagement, with many 'pseudo-conversations' taking place simultaneously as participants fail to connect - either with each other or with the ostensible purpose of their interactions. In the context of Kotter's agenda, this is the dynamic that he characterises as false urgency.
- To complete the picture, the sought-after condition is one of healthy and conversational interaction, in which organizational conversations are meaningful, alive and engaging. In this state, participants feed off, and build on, each other's contributions in a dynamic and (multi-)purposeful way. However, these are not only the conditions required to generate "a real sense of urgency"; they are also those needed to bring about change in all of its dimensions.
Hit or miss?
Overall, freed from the straightjacket of Leading Change, A Sense of Urgency offers managers some useful pointers for creating the "real sense of urgency" that Kotter sees as the most important factor in achieveing successful change. And its frequent use of checklists, summaries and illustrative stories will make it a 'hit' for many.
At the same time, like the 'albums' that have spawned it, this latest release sticks to a formal, rational and structured view of organizational dynamics. It is therefore unavoidably a 'miss' for those of us who see the process and outcomes of change as heavily dependent on the hidden, messy and informal dynamics of organizations that managers face every day.
Related posts: Kotter's Eight Steps and Informal Coalitions.