Creating a sense of urgency - Canadian Government Executive
John WilkinsLeadershipManagement
December 14, 2017

Creating a sense of urgency

Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late! LEWIS CARROLL (1865): ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND

Time is of the essence for Alice’s White Rabbit. In business, time is money. In government, the call to timely action is now. In management, timing is everything. Time is a scarce, diminishing resource that needs to be managed with care and urgency.

Having a sense of urgency avoids lost opportunities and opportunity costs. Leaders motivate the need for change through bold, aspirational narratives that communicate the importance of acting immediately. They describe opportunities that appeal to people’s heads and hearts. They raise commitment to the cause through widespread engagement.

Kotter International estimates that 71 per cent of American workers are ‘actively disengaged’, costing $300 billion annually. Organizations that engage employees see big opportunities and ask themselves: Do we know how to identify, articulate, and communicate opportunities? Can we connect external change factors with our special capabilities? What are the consequences of success or failure?

Making it urgent

Management control systems and damage control experts usefully mitigate risk in fast-paced, turbulent environments. However, controls can also lead to complacency. Organizations become complacent for many reasons – the absence of a major crisis, too many visible resources, low performance standards, or insufficient performance feedback.

Proper handling of crises can increase urgency when the need for change is clear. Experienced leaders know that fomenting discontent rouses managers out of status-quo thinking and helps overcome resistance to change. Dr. John Kotter clarifies the strategy: “A higher rate of urgency does not imply ever-present panic, anxiety, or fear. It means a state in which complacency is virtually absent.”

Urgency motivates people to make transformation happen with energy and momentum. Designing in urgency helps people visualize the change journey. Organizations that engage clients, stakeholders, and employees with empathy and urgency produce insights that lead to optimal solutions more quickly.

Launching a network of ‘urgency teams’ gives everyone in the organization permission to work boldly everyday toward realizing opportunities that define the transformation. Uncomfortable at first, teams build muscle to change mindsets, culture, and results. They sow the seeds of urgency to reap the rewards of change.

Managing urgency

Middle managers consider urgency when setting priorities. They use situation appraisal as a systematic approach for sorting concerns. Rational assessment of information ensures that the highest-priority concerns receive the appropriate time and effort. Managers need to know where to start, especially when competing priorities, commitment, or consensus are at stake.

Priority setting helps determine which concerns to handle first to meet changing needs. Managers assess exactly where to allocate time, energy, money, and direction by interrogating seriousness, urgency, and growth (SUG) – What is the impact? Who is concerned? What is the deadline for taking action? When do we need to start? What is the future trend? What will happen if nothing is done?

The answers to these questions provide specific information to judge relative priorities. Managers make priority setting visible by assessing SUG criteria in turn using high-medium-low indicators. They assign highs to SUG benchmarks to pinpoint the highest priorities. As situations change, tighter deadlines may mean greater urgency and higher priority.

Managers are used to thinking about time as the urgency for taking action. They perceive the need for quick action, even if the solution is sub-optimal. However, sacrificing quality because of time constraints may not serve well. It may be possible to take interim action that buys time to develop a quality solution or build needed commitment.

Time is more than a constraint; it is also a resource to be invested. Time spent analyzing a situation where the need for analytic quality is low is poorly spent, and time spent finding a quick fix that fails to meet quality standards is wasted when it pre-empts the opportunity to find a superior solution.

Time is a cost and an investment critical to problem-solving success. Time spent trying to find a high-quality solution or building commitment can be invested in other projects. Time wasted in needless meetings cannot be reused.

Managers should avoid short-sighted time pressures by testing deadlines. Sometimes, initial deadlines are set to force early action. Moreover, what is a realistic deadline if quality is needed?

Middle managers are typically faced with balancing enough analytic quality and commitment with the time available. Successful implementation of change makes the best use of time. Mastery of this basic management challenge relies upon an acute sense of urgency.


John Wilkins is Executive in Residence: Public Management at York University. He was a career public servant and diplomat. (

About this author

John Wilkins

John Wilkins is Executive in Residence: Public Management at York University. He was a career public servant and diplomat. (


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