Several times in the last few weeks, someone has told me that I have to “create a sense of urgency” in the context of change management. Typically this was said within a sentence or two of also telling me I needed to be “open” and “transparent.” It occurred to me somewhere along the way that creating a sense of urgency is the worst kind of cliché. Management experts have been saying it instinctively for years without actually thinking about what it means. It’s like when the doctor hits your knee with that little hammer, and you have no choice but to kick.

Got a change management issue?

Create a sense of urgency.

Let’s break it down a little to illustrate my point.

Create – We create solutions, ideas, art, fiction, but in the context of change management, what is it really we are trying to create? If you’re trying to get people to help create a solution, you really should engage them well before the need for a sense of urgency. If your change is really at the point where you’ve thought it through and can prove it’s the right thing to do, then what you need to do is communicate, not create.

Sense – Sense is a vague word that alludes to a feeling. It’s that little tingle at back your throat that gives you the “sense” that you may be quite possibly may in fact be getting a slight cold, or maybe you just need a drink of water. The problem here is the interpretation of what it is you were trying to create is highly dependent on how in touch the receiver of the message is with his or her feelings. There’s nothing concrete about it. What you really meant to say is that there is an expectation that you want to set. Expectation clearly states there is a specific action, behavior, or thought pattern (gasp) that you will follow.

Urgency –Urgency is not as vague as the word “sense,” but it also implies a personal interpretation. The fact that something is urgent does not necessarily mean it’s important. If you think of it in a time management context, Stephen Covey, came up with a great visual matrix in First Things First:

Covey matrix showing urgency juxtaposed with importance

Urgency juxtaposed with importance

Truth is that change may not be urgent at all, but that doesn’t make it any less important. With any change, lasting effects occur only when the change is important to the business and the individual. That’s the point—that it’s important—not the timetable.

Without specificity, human beings tend to be quite literal. I don’t think it much of a stretch that:

Create a Sense of Urgency

Is translated as:

A fictional account that will make me feel uneasy and that I need to take care of immediately, but that probably isn’t important.

If we really take our own medicine and are changing the way we think about people in our organizations, we’ll see that they deserve far more than a tired, irrelevant cliché. What we all need for today and lasting change is to communicate an expectation and explain the importance. Make a new cliché if you must, but let go of language that is misleading and vague.