Agents of Change-Part 1

I can't recall how many times I've been brought into a meeting, an organization, or a committee tasked with creating lasting, important change only to find within a couple of months that the entire process was bogged down in the emotional and political equivalent of quicksand.

It usually starts something like this: The team is formed from existing board members or a group of departments. Their task is to take a day or two to come up with a new mission statement or vision document. That step results in one of two outcomes: profound disagreement on how to proceed and what the vision should be, or a very polite, nebulous, and completely impossible mission statement that everyone can agree to. An example of the latter would be the Walt Disney Corporation:

The Walt Disney Company's objective is to be one of the world's leading producers and providers of entertainment and information, using its portfolio of brands to differentiate its content, services and consumer products. The company's primary financial goals are to maximize earnings and cash flow, and to allocate capital toward growth initiatives that will drive long-term shareholder value.(

It's hard to argue with the idea of "using brands to differentiate content" (whatever that means), or to maximize earnings and cash flow; but how does that drive any sort of change? If Disney is successful, it is due to no thanks to their mission statement.

John Kotter of Harvard University suggests that change begins with a sense of urgency among the top managers and leaders within an organization. This urgency can't be manufactured, but it can be visualized. Kotter argues that this urgency does not come from redeveloping a vision statement or strategic plan; it does not come from a financial analysis nor a 24 page business case. He insists that it only comes from some sort of visceral realization by the organization's leaders. One CEO ran into constant resistance when trying to tell his employees they needed to be more customer-focused in their business practices. Finally, he sent out a videographer to interview customers and then played the tape of angry customers to his senior staff. (

The development of this sense of urgency requires a communication tool or event. While it is a "manufactured" event in that it is planned and coordinated by someone, it must come across as genuine and sincere. It must be visceral and graphically tie the event with the organizational imperative through sight, touch or story. It's role is to promote urgency not guilt or blame and if it "lands to close to home" it is likely to backfire and arouse resentment and defensiveness. It's role is to make a factual impact. While it should be supported by some level of analysis, it relies on facts, figures, and rational argument for its foundation and not its presentation.

Wondering how effective this sense of urgency can be in turning around a company? Before Steve Jobs took back control of Apple, it was less than 60 days from insolvency. Today it is the world's largest company by market capitalization. ( is necessary to create focus, to break inertial patterns, to move an organization from its comfort zone and back into the realm of innovation and success.