The big opportunity

To build support for something new, leaders must articulate the big opportunity that could be missed unless something changes.

Lasting organizational change requires building a sense of urgency among those impacted by the change. These stakeholders need to feel that a big opportunity could be missed unless something changes. Simeon Sinek has made this starting place popular with his book and TED talk, “Start With Why.”

In the mid 1990s, Harvard Business School Professor John Kotter first introduced a change model with building a sense of urgency as its foundational first step. He has been refining the process ever since and this year released, “Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World.”

In it, Kotter focuses on how organizations can build “dual operating systems” that take advantage of the sense of urgency for a big opportunity and also continue business as usual. The book provides practical process advice and stories of implementation, similar to Clayton Christensen’s disruptive innovation and Ron Heifetz’s adaptive leadership.

Twenty years ago, I was part of the effort to introduce intentional interim ministry to my denomination. At the time congregations saw the interim between pastors as someone to endure.

Intentional interim ministry provided a structure, amidst a congregation’s urgency to call a new leader, to articulate its identity and prepare for a productive relationship with the new pastor. I saw congregations take on issues and collaborate at a lightning fast pace because they wanted to get the work done and get that new pastor. Kotter’s work appeared a few years later and explained what I was seeing in terms of organizational behavior.

Over the years I found that at the core "urgency" was about the haunting, tough questions with which a group needed to wrestle. If the questions began to align, then the group would be much more responsive to answers as they emerged.

Leaders often feel responsible for providing quick answers. All too often the leaders answer questions that many are not yet asking. In order to tackle wicked problems, spending significant effort in defining the problem is a first step. The language of “big opportunity” helps frame the articulation of questions with a sense of hope.

Kotter’s “dual operating system” is an organizational principle that he observed in action across a number of successful change processes. One system is the typically hierarchical management structure. A second system is a network of individuals across the organization who care deeply about the opportunity facing the organization and volunteer to work on specific tasks and teams beyond their normal work. Kotter maintains that the second system costs very little money and can achieve significant results. The dual system organizes the questions and opportunity productively.

The dual operating system and intentional interim ministry are frameworks, not precise recipes to follow. To build urgency, leaders must have a deep love for the work’s purpose, read the context of a situation and respond to it with an improvisational spirit.