As a continue to read (and value) John Kotter's latest book, A Sense of Urgency, there is a growing dis-ease that I must set out here. As I noted in an earlier post, Kotter makes a distinction between a true sense of urgency with a false sense of urgency and with complacency. But he goes on to describe this desired state a permanent dynamic:
'It is often believed that people cannot maintain a high sense of urgency over a prolonged period of time, without burnout. Yet with all the alertness, initiative and speed, true urgency doesn't produce dangerous levels of stress, at lest partially because it motivates people to relentlessly look for ways to rid themselves of chores that add little value to their organizations but clog their calendars and slow down needed action. People who are determined to move and win, now, simply do not waste time or add stress by engaging in irrelevant or business-as-usual activities.' (p.9)'
Professor Kotter, you anticipate my objection. It reminds me of another quote, this time from Tom Watson, Founder of IBM:
"IBM is what it is today for three special reasons. The first reason is that, at the very beginning, I had a very clear picture of what the company would like when it was finally done. You might say that I had a model in my mind of what it would look like when the dream - my vision - was in place.
“The second reason was that once I had that picture, I then asked myself how a company that looked like that would have to act. I then created a picture of how IBM would act when it was finally done. The third reason that IBM has been so successful was that once I had a picture in place of how IBM would look when the dream was in place, and how such a company would have to act, I then realised that unless we began to act that way from the very beginning, we would never get there. In other words, I realised that for IBM to become a great company it would have to act like a great company long before it ever became one. From the very outset, IBM was fashioned after the template of my vision. And each and every day, we attempted to model the company after that template. At the end of each day, we asked ourselves how well we did, discovered the disparity between where we were and where we had committed ourselves to be, and at the start of the following day, we set out to make up the difference. Every day at IBM was a day devoted to business development, not doing business. We didn't do business at IBM, we built one."
But I am still sceptical about living this level of urgency as a business lifestyle. Jim Loehr & Tony Schwartz in The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal
, and Dr Jack Groppel in The Corporate Athlete: How to Achieve Maximal Performance in Business and Life
, have brought research on improving athletic performance to the business arena. All human systems operate on a stress and recovery cycle. What Loehr, Groppel, et al.
have shown is that by introducing proper, regular disciplines ('rituals') that slightly stress more but allow a rhythm of recovery, individual performance can improve in measurable terms by as much as 20%.
Now, if this is true for individuals, could this also hold true for teams and organisations? I think there may be some carry-through into project or organisational performance. Indeed, I have come across organisations where there have been deliberate practices of planning shorter, high-stress project life cycle bursts, but then following that with a step-down into useful, but restorative recovery patterns of work.
As a Christian I draw on the Jewish tradition of Shabbat ('Sabbath') as one of my spiritual disciplines (rituals), and I can testify to the restorative nature of this practice. Among other things, it breaks the 'Tyranny of the Urgent', as Charles Hummel called it, and helps me to get my head above the weeds and remember what is truly important. It's more than a mere cliche to say that life is a marathon and not a sprint.
So, yes, working on truly urgent/important work as a tempo is energising, but I suspect it is even more productive when it is not chronic, but mixed with cycles of recovery.