We’ve seen that we can innovate quickly when we’re faced with a major existential crisis, but how do organisations create a sense of urgency during day-to-day business? For day-to-day innovations like systems introductions, new product rollouts, major process shifts... Because the truth is that most of these initiatives are urgent and existential; it’s just that they don’t always feel that way. In this article, we will share some experiences that you can apply to your business to create that sense of urgency.

In the past few months, we’ve seen a strong contrast between the modest pace of typical change management projects and the rapid innovation that is stimulated by a crisis. Take, for example, a local city council that started with the concept of providing public services online as a way to optimize available resources. The city launched a well-planned change initiative to introduce the concept across functions and to counter passive resistance. Leaders built a business case, sketched out the vision, mobilized stakeholders, created metrics for success, and started a pilot. But after several months there still was not much enthusiasm or action towards developing the new online service. In 2020 the coronavirus forced the city to stop with face-to-face appointments, and, within a matter of days, online services, virtual appointments were implemented across its departments.

The fundamental difference between the months before the coronavirus and the weeks that followed was the sense of urgency provoked by the crisis. The civilians demanded change, no matter what it took, because the alternative was that they could not be helped. This emotional and existential pressure is often much weaker or missing in organized change efforts. The project competes with other initiatives and goals for attention and resources; time frames are longer and more drawn out; the sponsoring executive does not drive the project on a day-to-day basis; and civilians (in this case) or customers are not demanding immediate results.

But good news, there are three ways, distilled from our experiences, leaders can make that sense of urgency more likely.

1. Engage in small experiments, shift the change effort from theory to reality

Think about change not as a big project but as a series of small experiments. Reach your goal by dividing it into consistent small, sliced steps, based on the Salami technique. Learn quickly, in-the-field, what works, what does not, and what it takes to get a result. Companies can build excitement with experiments in any environment.

An example from one of our customers, a B2B sales & marketing company that was trying to reorganize their product portfolio into a whole new and simplified set of products. They started by selecting small groups of existing and new customers or prospects for testing out the new sales and customer service process. They tracked down the customer reactions and kept iterating until they reached their larger goal: a simplified product portfolio with a higher customer satisfaction rate and a higher annual contract value.

These small experiments created a greater sense of immediacy and urgency than a long, drawn-out change process. They engage people right away. It puts them emotionally on the line to find out how to make change happen in reality, rather than asking them to create an untested presentation deck about what “might” work.

2. Set up a crisis environment, make it clear that the effort is not “business as usual”

In a crisis, goals are:

  • short term,
  • high priority,
  • challenging,
  • and there is an overall understanding that they must be achieved.

Build these factors into your small experiments. It will force people to treat it as a priority, creates peer pressure, the need to be productive and achieve progress, and the unique sense of camaraderie. Make sure the experiment is not just another task or project on top of everything else that they are doing, but something extraordinary, exciting, and positioned as critical for the organisation.

Back to our B2B sales & marketing company example. The CEO created a cross-functional team (called the core-team) from sales, customer service, IT, finance and marketing to actually figure out, execute and report the next steps after each experiment. This kept the pace high and gave them the visibility and the opportunity to ask whatever they needed to make the effort a success.

Success is a killer, so continuously challenging your company is key!

Jeroen Baeten

3. Get personally involved and stay involved on every aspect

Leaders often kick off the initiative and then disappear, leaving the day-to-day work to the project team members. To recreate the kind of urgency that exists in a crisis, you need to be part of the process, stay involved with the team, join them to celebrate the successes and deal with the disappointments, and help them pivot or solve problems.

The CEO of our B2B sales & marketing company joined all the core-team meetings to learn about the progress, provided input and solved problems, and to made decisions on the spot. The project was part of the company-wide town hall meetings and the CEO was personally involved in certain steps such as “being a sales or service agent for a day”. And let’s not forget, he personally thanked us for our contributions and efforts with a 2-star Michelin restaurant voucher 😉.

While these steps sound simple, they are not easy, especially if you are a well-controlled and established company. They require you to be demanding and it might even be perceived as unbalanced. They require you to risk your job or reputations to passionately inspire and ignite people. And they challenge you to be comfortable with not knowing exactly what the experiments will uncover, but rather to have faith in yourself and your people. In other words, taking these steps requires hard work and will need more guts than brains.