How to find opportunity in a crisis: 5 ways to create a sense of urgency

A crisis can help an IT leader get people’s attention in an otherwise noisy environment, says leadership guru John Kotter
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In an often volatile, chaotic, and uncertain world, you will face many crises – from small fires to big blowups. Calamity can be disconcerting or downright frightening, but it can also present a chance to make the case for urgency in the technology organization. As leadership guru John Kotter explained to The Enterprisers Project, a crisis can help an IT leader get people’s attention in an otherwise noisy environment.

But how do you harness a crisis to help instill a sense of urgency without scaring people or causing them to shut down? Kotter and other experts have tips.

[ Want ideas on how to model urgency for your team? Read also: 20 ways to create a sense of urgency. ]

1. Practice crisis response

“Make scenario planning part of your DNA.”

Being prepared for the unexpected makes it more likely that the team can respond with urgency rather than, say, frustration or fear. “Make scenario planning part of your DNA,” says Mindy Bostick, global people and change lead at North Highland Worldwide Consulting, who works closely with CIOs and other C-suite executives. “Scenario planning is a great way to bond as a team and get some of those pathways embedded in people’s minds so that when they need to respond to a crisis, they can respond calmly. It is only in a calm place that opportunity can be found.”

What-if models themselves are also a great way to uncover opportunities generally, says Rajiv Kohli, John N. Dalton Memorial Professor of Business at William & Mary’s Raymond A. Mason School of Business.

2. Rally the troops

In his book, A Sense of Urgency, Kotter explained that a crisis, broadcast clearly to all, can be a call to arms. But the key is to make the desired response – urgent action – clear, without alarming people.

That requires leaders to themselves demonstrate a response of calm but focused action. The message CIOs should send, Kotter says, is “all hands on deck – we need to deal with this, we have a responsibility to deal with this, we CAN deal with this, and as fast as possible.” The aim is to energize and motivate the team to overcome the challenge at hand and suggest that if they address the issue cleverly, they might even uncover the opportunity within the crisis.

3. Make the situation clear

Sometimes a catastrophe is so obvious that it needs little pointing out. But for many organizations, crises may be more like a slow-moving train wreck. In such cases, the organization may be blind to the risk and complacency can set in.

When that is the situation, an IT leader will need to call attention to the hidden but looming danger in a clear and forthright fashion, using relevant data (like market conditions, competitive threats, and related financial or customer information). Honest and transparent communication about the urgent need for change is key, Kotter says.

You need to educate everyone on the rationale for urgency, advises Rob Llewellyn, founder of CXO Transform, which offers a digital transformation framework. “Ensure executives and teams understand why urgency is so important for the initiative,” he recently told us. And educate them on the consequences of delayed action as well, he advises.

4. Step back

“You need to have trust that your team will be able to swarm around the problem and come up with solutions.”

While it’s important for IT leaders to model the urgency response to a crisis, the goal is for the rest of the organization to internalize it. Therefore, they must give their teams the opportunity to rise to the occasion. “As a leader, you need to have trust that your team will be able to swarm around the problem and come up with solutions,” Bostick says. “By creating this capability in them, the leader can then feel more confident in taking a step back, taking a bird’s eye view, and therefore gaining perspective.”

5. Beware of post-crisis complacency

There is a difference between urgency and anxious activity. The latter may seem productive and get the organization through the crisis, but it can stress individuals out and ultimately drain them of the energy or excitement the IT leader was hoping to generate.

Finding opportunity in a crisis is not about lighting a fire under the organization to respond to the situation at hand, which can create panic. Instead, it requires a leader to motivate others to think about problems (like the crisis at hand) in new ways. That builds momentum and a more sustainable sense of urgency.

[ Want tactical advice on this topic? Read also: How to create a sense of urgency without stressing out your team: 7 tips. ]

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.