Bad Urgency vs. Good Urgency: The Calendar Test

Last Updated Mar 10, 2011 9:42 AM EST

Harvard Business School professor John Kotter's recent book A Sense of Urgency has been one of the more popular business tomes in recent memory. Managers seem to identify with his message that complacency can most effectively be overcome when organizations develop a mindset that the time for action is now.

But there is bad urgency as well as good urgency. Here is how Kotter explains the difference in an interview with Inc.com.

  • Bad Urgency. "There are lots of signs of false urgency. Frenetic activity. Everyone is exhausted, working 14-hour days. One red flag is how difficult it is to schedule a meeting. With true urgency, people leave lots of white space on their calendars, because they recognize that the important stuff -- the stuff they need to deal with immediately -- is going to happen. If you're overbooked, you can't manage pressing problems or even recognize they're pressing until too late."
  • Good Urgency. "The leader should be telling them to do just the opposite. He should say, 'I want everyone to look at your calendars. What's on there that doesn't clearly move us forward? Get rid of it!' True urgency is the most important precursor of real change."
Read the interview to see why Kotter believes that what is occurring now in Washington D.C. is a classic example of bad urgency. Yes, everyone is busy, but no one is approaching problems in a fundamentally new way.

Does your company have the right sense of urgency? Does your calendar pass Kotter's white space test?

Related Reading: A book excerpt from A Sense of Urgency
(Emergency image by Ian Muttoo, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.