8 Steps To Knock Out An Impossible Punch List

First, take a deep breath. Good? Now read on for advice on "constructive urgency."

"Discontent is the first necessity of progress."—Thomas Edison

Our impact on the world depends on our ability manage urgency. Right now, I'm not doing so well. On my flight racing over to Honduras, my mind is wandering: What should I do first? Write a blog post? Prep for next week's workshop? Watch a movie? I'm in a state of paralysis, which John Kotter, the Harvard Business School guru of change leadership calls "false urgency," and I like to call "destructive urgency." There are three types of urgency:

1. Complacency: You make no effort because you think things are fine.

2. Destructive urgency: You are stressed, worried, know things must change but you don't know what to do, so you waste your time looking busy but achieving little.

3. Constructive urgency: You feel an energizing sense of purpose and direction, what Kotter calls "real urgency," that "is not something that wears you down...real urgency produces success, which gives energy back."

To win whatever game we are playing, we must push people past complacency, steer clear of destructive urgency, and land in the constructive urgency zone.

So how do you create constructive urgency? This week I read articles and books, and interviewed experts and compiled this eight-step summary.

Step 1: Orient

Glen Manchester, by all accounts, was doing wonders with Thunderhead, the customer engagement technology company he launched in 2001, growing at 40% annually and being ranked as one of the world’s most innovative tech firms. He had revenue approaching $70 million, over 200 employees, hundreds of marquis clients, and yet he realized he was in trouble. Thunderhead was flying into a storm.

"I saw we had so much innovation potential that our clients were not buying [because] we were selling to the wrong people," said Manchester.

The future buyers of client engagement solutions should be chief marketing officers, not IT departments, and if Thunderhead didn't adjust now, another competitor would soon. He and his team sat down and played out the scenario until they realized their strategy had to change.

Only when you realize that change is necessary, is the possibility for change born.

Step 2: Paint a new future

So Manchester and his team proposed the question: "What if we extract IT (technology) out of the equation...if [customer engagement] solutions were not built for CIOs and call centers," but rather for the marketing department? They realized this paradigm changed everything that required you to attack in "a clean sheet way."

Step 3: Create meaning

Logic doesn’t move people, emotion does. To build commitment to your new future you need to have it mean something to your team. Thunderhead did this by connecting with its core aspiration to be a global player, not a once-ran.

Step 4: Find the strategic concept

Plans fall apart quickly once the battle begins. So in fast-paced change efforts, simple, easily communicated strategies work best. Manchester came up with a brilliant one. "We were going to acquire ourselves," he said, and disrupt the company before someone else does. Thunderhead would create an alternative persona, Thunderhead.com, buy the old Thunderhead brand, and execute a bold transformation program.

Step 5: Put up blinders

Your success will inevitably trigger naysayers. Thunderhead.com, for example, is creating a new product category that "no one is really talking about [yet]; no one is saying this is where things are going." How do you immunize yourself from such disbelievers? You reframe the doubters. "If it's feeling easy, it's wrong," Manchester told me. This is like elite athletes who work with, even seek out, the pain as sign they are improving.

Step 6: Remove the drag

You will get distracted by bureaucracy. There are always forms to fill out, procedures to learn, paperwork to slow you down. Remove the drag and focus on the actions that really matter. When Oracle CEO Larry Ellison was once told by a manger they couldn’t connect servers because their new building had not yet been wired, Ellison supposedly hammered a hole in the drywall, pulled through a loose cable, and told the manager he was now wired. Cut down the drag to pick up speed.

Step 7: Produce results

Successful change efforts produce results early. For example, the South Beach Diet took the U.S. by storm five years ago not because of its breakthrough science but because it was simple to follow and produced noticeable results in two weeks.

Step 8: Create perceived motion

Talking to successful entrepreneurs like Manchester usually feels like being on a bullet train. Things are moving quickly and if you don’t grab on you will be left behind. Humans are designed to notice motion, not static movement. So create a sense of velocity for your investors, employees, and customers. Don't just talk about what you are doing until you succinctly describe how the world is changing (e.g., "technology is getting simpler, consumers are driving adoption, China and India are emerging ... and that is why this opportunity is available now for the first time").

Putting it to work

  • Have you reached discontent? If not, find it, talk about it, get your team a (little) depressed. But jump to step 2 quickly, before you lead your team to destructive discontent.
  • Does your new vision make you anxious or complacent? If so, redesign it. I personally see some parts of my vision completely excite me, others less so. So I'll revisit those.
  • Is realizing your vision important? Does it link to your values? If not, ask "why is this important to me and to the world?" I, for example, am building an online tool based on my process and sometimes forget why: to help everyone make smarter decisions every day. Reconnect to your purpose.
  • What strategic metaphor captures your plan? For me, it's to build the "Bloomberg" for change makers. If you don't have one, create one.
  • What will you do to block doubters from sapping your enthusiasm? What works for me is a group of mentors I can call, who think big, and can inspire me.
  • What are you wasting time on? Stop doing that. For example, I spend too much time setting up conference calls. I’m going to start picking up the phone instead.
  • What immediate results are you playing for? For me, it's to launch "proof of concept"...which we will get to you next week!
  • What preamble will create a sense of acceleration for your idea? If it does not feel like a bullet train, rewrite it. I tend to start with theory. That doesn't work. Instead I will launch into my "accelerator" preamble every time I speak to a new client or investor.

Click here to see my video of this blog.

[Image: Flickr user Jes Mugley]

Add New Comment

4 Comments

  • Clare Thwaites

    Brilliant post, thank you - I've floating somewhere between destructive urgency and constructive - although managing my time better and better - and yes, success gives you energy the fuels you on to do more! great stuff :-)

  • Railingk

    There are three separate numbered or bulleted lists in this article, which suggests to me the author is not, in fact, organized enough to knock out an impossible punch list.

  • J Mcmillan

    Unless Thunderhead catered to royalty, the appropriate word
    is marquee, not marquis.

     

  • larry dauod

    Excellent article- I like the fact this is NOT about the broad idea of procrastination, but constructive urgency- a much more resonant term.  The concepts here apply to business- whether you are in a start-up or managing the painful realities of corporate America. 

    Plus these principles also apply to managing our personal lives and the frenetic and crazed demand for our attention.

    Thank you for spelling this out- I plan to share with my team this afternoon and my family tonight.