22 February 2013

Controversies over singularitarian utopianism

I shouldn’t have been surprised at the controversy that arose.

The cause was an hour-long lecture with 55 slides, ranging far and wide over a range of disruptive near-future scenarios, covering both upside and downside. The basic format of the lecture was: first the good news, and then the bad news. As stated on the opening slide,

Some illustrations of the enormous potential first, then some examples of how adding a high level of ambient stupidity might mean we might make a mess of it.

Ian PearsonThe speaker was Ian Pearson, described on his company website as “futurologist, conference speaker, regular media guest, strategist and writer”. The website continues, boldly,

Anyone can predict stuff, but only a few get it right…

Ian Pearson has been a full time futurologist since 1991, with a proven track record of over 85% accuracy at the 10 year horizon.

Ian was speaking, on my invitation, at the London Futurists last Saturday. His chosen topic was audacious in scope:

A Singularitarian Utopia Or A New Dark Age?

We’re all familiar with the idea of the singularity, the end-result of rapid acceleration of technology development caused by positive feedback. This will add greatly to human capability, not just via gadgets but also through direct body and mind enhancement, and we’ll mess a lot with other organisms and AIs too. So we’ll have superhumans and super AIs as part of our society.

But this new technology won’t bring a utopia. We all know that some powerful people, governments, companies and terrorists will also add lots of bad things to the mix. The same technology that lets you enhance your senses or expand your mind also allows greatly increased surveillance and control, eventually to the extremes of direct indoctrination and zombification. Taking the forces that already exist, of tribalism, political correctness, secrecy for them and exposure for us, and so on, it’s clear that the far future will be a weird mixture of fantastic capability, spoiled by abuse…

There were around 200 people in the audience, listening as Ian progressed through a series of increasingly mind-stretching technology opportunities. Judging by the comments posted online afterwards, some of the audience deeply appreciated what they heard:

Thank you for a terrific two hours, I have gone away full of ideas; I found the talk extremely interesting indeed…

I really enjoyed this provocative presentation…

Provocative and stimulating…

Very interesting. Thank you for organizing it!…

Amazing and fascinating!…

But not everyone was satisfied. Here’s an extract from one negative comment:

After the first half (a trippy sub-SciFi brainstorm session) my only question was, “What Are You On?”…

Another audience member wrote his own blogpost about the meeting:

A Singularitanian Utopia or a wasted afternoon?

…it was a warmed-over mish-mash of technological cornucopianism, seasoned with Daily Mail-style reactionary harrumphing about ‘political correctness gone mad’.

These are just the starters of negative feedback; I’ll get to others shortly. As I review what was said in the meeting, and look at the spirited ongoing exchange of comments online, some thoughts come to my mind:

  • Big ideas almost inevitably provoke big reactions; this talk had a lot of particularly big ideas
  • In some cases, the negative reactions to the talk arise from misunderstandings, due in part to so much material being covered in the presentation
  • In other cases, Isee the criticisms as reactions to the seeming over-confidence of the speaker (“…a proven track record of over 85% accuracy”)
  • In yet other cases, I share the negative reactions the talk generated; my own view of the near-future landscape significantly differs from the one presented on stage
  • In nearly all cases, it’s worth taking the time to progress the discussion further
  • After all, if we get our forecasts of the future wrong, and fail to make adequate preparations for the disruptions ahead, it could make a huge difference to our collective well-being.

So let’s look again at some of the adverse reactions. My aim is to raise them in a way that people who didn’t attend the talk should be able to follow the analysis.

(1) Is imminent transformation of much of human life a realistic scenario? Or are these ideas just science fiction?

NBIC SingularityThe main driver for belief in the possible imminent transformation of human life, enabled by rapidly changing technology, is the observation of progress towards “NBIC” convergence.

Significant improvements are taking place, almost daily, in our capabilities to understand and control atoms (Nano-tech), genes and other areas of life-sciences (Bio-tech), bits (Info-comms-tech), and neurons and other areas of mind (Cogno-tech). Importantly, improvements in these different fields are interacting with each other.

As Ian Pearson described the interactions:

  • Nanotech gives us tiny devices
  • Tiny sensors help neuroscience figure out how the mind works
  • Insights from neuroscience feed into machine intelligence
  • Improving machine intelligence accelerates R&D in every field
  • Biotech and IT advances make body and machine connectable

Will all the individual possible applications of NBIC convergence described by Ian happen in precisely the way he illustrated? Very probably not. The future’s not as predictable as that. But something similar could well happen:

  • Cheaper forms of energy
  • Tissue-cultured meat
  • Space exploration
  • Further miniaturisation of personal computing (wearable computing, and even “active skin”)
  • Smart glasses
  • Augmented reality displays
  • Gel computing
  • IQ and sensory enhancement
  • Dream linking
  • Human-machine convergence
  • Digital immortality: “the under 40s might live forever… but which body would you choose?”

(2) Is a focus on smart cosmetic technology an indulgent distraction from pressing environmental issues?

Here’s one of the comments raised online after the talk:

Unfortunately any respect due was undermined by his contempt for the massive environmental challenges we face.

Trivial contact lens / jewellery technology can hang itself, if our countryside is choked by yoghurt factory fumes.

The reference to jewellery took issue with remarks in the talk such as the following:

Miniaturisation will bring everyday IT down to jewellery size…

Decoration; Social status; Digital bubble; Tribal signalling…

In contrast, the talk positioned greater use of technology as the solution to environmental issues, rather than as something to exacerbate these issues. Smaller (jewellery-sized) devices, created with a greater attention to recyclability, will diminish the environmental footprint. Ian claimed that:

  • We can produce more of everything than people need
  • Improved global land management could feed up to 20 billion people
  • Clean water will be plentiful
  • We will also need less and waste less
  • Long term pollution will decline.

Nevertheless, he acknowledged that there are some short-term problems, ahead of the time when accelerating NBIC convergence can be expected to provide more comprehensive solutions:

  • Energy shortage is a short to mid term problem
  • Real problems are short term.

Where there’s room for real debate is the extent of these shorter-term problems. Discussion on the threats from global warming brought these disagreements into sharp focus.

(3) How should singularitarians regard the threat from global warming?

BalanceTowards the end of his talk, Ian showed a pair of scales, weighing up the wins and losses of NBIC technologies and a potential singularity.

The “wins” column included health, growth, wealth, fun, and empowerment.

The “losses” column included control, surveillance, oppression, directionless, and terrorism.

One of the first questions from the floor, during the Q&A period in the meeting, asked why the risk of environmental destruction was not on the list of possible future scenarios. This criticism was echoed by online comments:

The complacency about CO2 going into the atmosphere was scary…

If we risk heading towards an environmental abyss let’s do something about what we do know – fossil fuel burning.

During his talk, I picked up on one of Ian’s comments about not being particularly concerned about the risks of global warming. I asked, what about the risks of adverse positive feedback cycles, such as increasing temperatures triggering the release of vast ancient stores of methane gas from frozen tundra, accelerating the warming cycle further? That could lead to temperature increases that are much more rapid than presently contemplated, along with lots of savage disturbance (storms, droughts, etc).

Ian countered that it was a possibility, but he had the following reservations:

  • He thought these positive feedback loops would only kick into action when baseline temperature rose by around 2 degrees
  • In the meantime, global average temperatures have stopped rising, over the last eleven years
  • He estimates he spends a couple of hours every day, keeping an eye on all sides of the global warming debate
  • There are lots of exaggerations and poor science on both sides of the debate
  • Other factors such as the influence of solar cycles deserve more research.

Here’s my own reaction to these claims:

  • The view that global average temperatures  have stopped rising, is, among serious scientists, very much a minority position; see e.g. this rebuttal on Carbon Brief
  • Even if there’s only a small probability of a runaway spurt of accelerated global warming in the next 10-15 years, we need to treat that risk very seriously – in the same way that, for example, we would be loath to take a transatlantic flight if we were told there was a 5% chance of the airplane disintegrating mid-flight.

Nevertheless, I did not want the entire meeting to divert into a debate about global warming – “that deserves a full meeting in its own right”, I commented, before moving on to the next question. In retrospect, perhaps that was a mistake, since it may have caused some members of the audience to mentally disengage from the meeting.

(4) Are there distinct right-wing and left-wing approaches to the singularity?

Here’s another comment that was raised online after the talk:

I found the second half of the talk to be very disappointing and very right-wing.

And another:

Someone who lists ‘race equality’ as part of the trend towards ignorance has shown very clearly what wing he is on…

In the second half of his talk, Ian outlined changes in norms of beliefs and values. He talked about the growth of “religion substitutes” via a “random walk of values”:

  • Religious texts used to act as a fixed reference for ethical values
  • Secular society has no fixed reference point so values oscillate quickly.
  • 20 years can yield 180 degree shift
  • e.g. euthanasia, sexuality, abortion, animal rights, genetic modification, nuclear energy, family, policing, teaching, authority…
  • Pressure to conform reinforces relativism at the expense of intellectual rigour

A complicating factor here, Ian stated, was that

People have a strong need to feel they are ‘good’. Some of today’s ideological subscriptions are essentially secular substitutes for religion, and demand same suspension of free thinking and logical reasoning.

Knowledge GraphA few slides later, he listed examples of “the rise of nonsense beliefs”:

e.g. new age, alternative medicine, alternative science, 21st century piety, political correctness

He also commented that “99% are only well-informed on trivia”, such as fashion, celebrity, TV culture, sport, games, and chat virtual environments.

This analysis culminated with a slide that personally strongly resonated with me: a curve of “anti-knowledge” accelerating and overtaking a curve of “knowledge”:

In pursuit of social compliance, we are told to believe things that are known to be false.

With clever enough spin, people accept them and become worse than ignorant.

So there’s a kind of race between “knowledge” and “anti-knowledge”.

One reason this resonated with me is that it seemed like a different angle on one of my own favourite metaphors for the challenges of the next 15-30 years – the metaphor of a dramatic race:

  • One runner in the race is “increasing rationality, innovation, and collaboration”; if this runner wins, the race ends in a positive singularity
  • The other runner in the race is “increasing complexity, rapidly diminishing resources”; if this runner wins, the race ends in a negative singularity.

In the light of Ian’s analysis, I can see that the second runner is aided by the increase of anti-knowledge: over-attachment to magical, simplistic, ultimately misleading worldviews.

However, it’s one thing to agree that “anti-knowledge” is a significant factor in determining the future; it’s another thing to agree which sets of ideas count as knowledge, and which as anti-knowledge! One of Ian’s slides included the following list of “religion substitutes”:

Animal rights, political correctness, pacifism, vegetarianism, fitness, warmism, environmentalism, anti-capitalism

It’s no wonder that many of the audience felt offended. Why list “warmism” (a belief in human-caused global warming), but not “denialism” (denial of human-caused global warming? Why list “anti-capitalism” but not “free market fundamentalism”? Why list “pacifism” but not “militarism”?

One online comment made a shrewd observation:

Ian raised my curiosity about ‘false beliefs’ (or nonsense beliefs as Ian calls them) as I ‘believe’ we all inhabit different belief systems – so what is true for one person may be false for another… at that exact moment in time.

And things can change. Once upon a time, it was a nonsense belief that the world was round.

There may be 15% of truth in some nonsense beliefs…or possibly even 85% truth. Taking ‘alternative medicine’ as an example of one of Ian’s nonsense beliefs – what if two of the many reasons it was considered nonsense were that (1) it is outside the world (the system) of science and technology and (2) it cannot be controlled by the pharmaceutical companies (perhaps our high priests of today)?

(5) The role of corporations and politicians in the approach to the singularity

One place where the right-wing / left-wing division becomes more acute in the question of whether anything special needs to be done to control the behaviour of corporations (businesses).

One of Ian’s strong positive recommendations, at the end of his presentation, was that scientists and engineers should become more actively involved in educating the general public about issues of technology. Shortly afterward, the question came from the floor: what about actions to educate or control corporations? Ian replied that he had very little to recommend to corporations, over and above his recommendations to the individuals within these corporations.

My own view is different. From my life inside industry, I’ve seen numerous cases of good people who are significantly constrained in their actions by the company systems and metrics in which they find themselves enmeshed.

Indeed, just as people should be alarmed about the prospects of super-AIs gaining too much power, over and above the humans who created them, we should also be alarmed about the powers that super-corporations are accumulating, over and above the powers and intentions of their employees.

The argument to leave corporations alone finds its roots in ideologies of freedom: government regulation of corporations often has undesirable side-effects. Nevertheless, that’s just an argument for being smarter and more effective in how the regulation works – not an argument to abstain from regulation altogether.

The question of the appropriate forms of collaborative governance remains one of the really hard issues facing anyone concerned about the future. Leaving corporations to find their own best solutions is, in my view, very unlikely to be the optimum approach.

In terms of how “laissez-faire” we should be, in the face of potential apocalypse down the road, I agree with the assessment near the end of Jeremy Green’s blogpost:

Pearson’s closing assertion that in the end our politicians will always wake up and pull us back from the brink of any disaster is belied by many examples of civilisations that did not pull back and went right over the edge to destruction.


After the presentation in Birkbeck College ended, around 40-50 of the audience regrouped in a nearby pub, to continue the discussion. The discussion is also continuing, at a different tempo, in the online pages of the London Futurists meetup. Ian Pearson deserves hearty congratulation for stirring up what has turned out to be an enlightening discussion – even though there’s heat in the comments as well as light!

Evidently, the discussion is far from complete…

28 January 2010

The iPad: more for less?

Filed under: Apple, complacency, iPhone, strategy — David Wood @ 12:36 pm

There are plenty of reasons to be critical about the Apple iPad.  If they feel inclined, Apple’s competitors and detractors can lick their lips.

For example, an article in Gizmodo enumerates “8 Things That Suck About the iPad“:

  1. Big, Ugly Bezel
  2. No Multitasking
  3. No Cameras
  4. Touch Keyboard
  5. No HDMI Out
  6. The Name “iPad”
  7. No Flash
  8. Adapters, Adapters, Adapters (“if you want to plug anything into this, such as a digital camera, you need all sorts of ugly adapters. You need an adapter for USB for god’s sake”)
  9. It’s Not Widescreen
  10. Doesn’t Support T-Mobile 3G (“it uses microSIMs that literally no one else uses”)
  11. A Closed App Ecosystem.

(The last three items on the list were added after the article was first published.)

In similar vein, Robert Scoble reported the view of his 16 year old son: “iFail“:

  1. It isn’t compelling enough for a high school student who already has a Macintosh notebook and an iPhone.
  2. It is missing features that a high school student would like, like handwriting recognition to take notes, a camera to take pictures of the board in class (and girls), and the ability to print out documents for class.
  3. He hasn’t seen his textbooks on it yet, so the usecase of replacing heavy textbooks hasn’t shown up yet.
  4. The gaming features aren’t compelling enough for him to give up either the Xbox or the iPhone. The iPhone wins because it fits in his pocket. The Xbox wins because of Xbox live so he can play against his friends (not to mention engaging HD quality and wide variety of titles).
  5. He doesn’t like the file limitations. His friends send him videos that he can’t play in iTunes and the iPad doesn’t support Flash.
  6. It isn’t game changing like the iPhone was.

However, let’s remember that iPhone initially received a similar swathe of criticisms.  It, too, omitted lots of features that everyone took for granted would need to be part of a successful smartphone: multi-tasking, 3G, MMS, copy-and-paste…

The iPad shouldn’t be judged against existing markets.  Rather than participating in a “red ocean” that’s already swarming with active competitors, it has the chance to define and participate in an empty “blue ocean”.

  • Here, I’m using the language of W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne of INSEAD.
  • Blue ocean products avoid matching existing products feature-for-feature.
  • They miss out some items completely, but, instead, deliver big time on some other points.

It’s similar to how Palm made the first commercially successful pen-based handheld computer.  In comparison to predecessors – like the Casio Zoomer, the General Magic “Magic Cap”, and (ironically) the Apple Newton – the Palm Pilot delivered much less functionality.  But what it did deliver was a delight to use.  (I made a similar point in an earlier blog posting, reviewing the growth of the iPhone market share: “Market share is no comfort“.)

This is the “less is more” philosophy.  It’s a good philosophy!

Around the world, hundreds of millions of people are saying to themselves: the iPad is not for them.  But a different, large, group of potential users are likely to be interested.

It’s early days, but it looks as if the iPad will support excellent browsing of many kinds of content – content that previously would be read in physical books, newspapers, and magazines.  That’s a big market.

What’s more, reports suggest that the iPad packs tremendous speed.  For example, John Gruber reports the following on Daring Fireball:

…the iPad is using a new CPU designed and made by Apple itself: the Apple A4. This is a huge deal. I got about 20 blessed minutes of time using the iPad demo units Apple had at the event today, and if I had to sum up the device with one word, that word would be “fast”.

It is fast, fast, fast…

I expected the screen size to be the biggest differentiating factor in how the iPad feels compared to an iPhone, but I think the speed difference is just as big a factor. Web pages render so fast it was hard to believe. After using the iPhone so much for two and a half years, I’ve become accustomed to web pages rendering (relative to the Mac) slowly. On the iPad, they seem to render nearly instantly. (802.11n Wi-Fi helps too.)

The Maps app is crazy fast. Apps launch fast. Scrolling is fast. The Photos app is fast.

…everyone I spoke to in the press room was raving first and foremost about the speed. None of us could shut up about it. It feels impossibly fast.

Speed, for the iPad, might the special extra blast of usability that the new pen interface was the iPhone.

29 October 2009

Bridging the knowing doing gap

Filed under: books, change, complacency, leadership — David Wood @ 12:50 pm

A May 2000 Fast Company article Why Can’t We Get Anything Done? poses a very good question:

These days, people know a lot. Thousands of business books are published around the world each year. U.S. organizations alone spend more than $60 billion a year on training — mostly on management training. Companies spend billions of dollars a year on consulting. Meanwhile, more than 80,000 MBAs graduate each year from U.S. business schools. These students presumably have been taught the skills that they need to improve the way that companies do business.

But all of that state-of-the-art knowledge leaves us with a nagging question: Why can’t we get anything done? It’s a mystery worthy of a business-school case study. If we’re so well trained and so well informed, then why aren’t we a lot more effective? Or, as Stanford professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton ask in their useful book, The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge Into Action (Harvard Business School Press, 2000), “Why is it that, at the end of so many books and seminars, leaders report being enlightened and wiser, but not much happens in their organizations?”

Pfeffer and Sutton’s book “The Knowing Doing Gap” made a big impact on me when I read it.

The book recounts a story of a company paying consultants to come in and give them advice on particular strategy issues.  The consultants eventually found that previous consultants had already been engaged and produced reports that matched what they themselves were going to recommend.  The company had already received the advice which the consultants thought was best – but had failed to be able to act on that advice.

It’s a familiar story.  Companies bring in external advisors who say things that management agree make sense, but … nothing changes.

My own takeaway from the book was the following set of five characteristics of companies that can successfully bridge this vicious “Knowing Doing Gap”:

  1. They have leaders with a profound hands-on knowledge of the work domain;
  2. They have a bias for plain language and simple concepts;
  3. They encourage solutions rather than inaction, by framing questions asking “how”, not just “why”;
  4. They have strong mechanisms that close the loop – ensuring that actions are completed (rather than being forgotten, or excuses being accepted);
  5. They are not afraid to “learn by doing”, and thereby avoid analysis paralysis.

If you don’t have time to read the whole book, there’s a 38 minute long download “The smart talk trap” from Audible that covers much of the same ground.  It’s the audio version of a 1999 Harvard Business Review article by Pfeffer and Sutton:

The key to success in business is action. But in most companies, people are rewarded for talking – and the longer, louder, and more confusingly, the better. The good news is, there are 5 strategies that can help you avoid the trap.

Footnote: There’s one other angle that deserves a mention on this topic.  It’s the angle of why change programs frequently fail.  John Kotter has shed much light on this question.  I wrote about this previously, in “Why good people fail to change bad things“.

25 December 2008

Why good people fail to change bad things

Filed under: books, change, complacency, leadership, urgency — David Wood @ 3:22 pm

2008 has been a year of great change in the Symbian world. Important change initiatives that were kicked off in previous years have gathered speed.

2008 has also seen change and trauma at many other levels, throughout the mobile industry and beyond. And the need for widespread change still remains. Daily – perhaps hourly – we encounter items that lead us to wonder: Why isn’t someone getting this changed? Why isn’t someone taking proper care of such-and-such a personal issue, family issue, social issue, organisational issue, political issue, educational issue, environmental issue, operating system issue, ecosystem management issue, usability issue, and so on?

I’ve attended quite a few “change facilitation workshops” and similar over the last 24 months. One thinker who has impressed me greatly, with his analysis of the causes of failure of change initiatives – even when good people are involved in these initiatives – is Harvard Business School Professor John Kotter. Kotter describes a series of eight steps which he recommends all significant change initiatives to follow:

  1. Build a sense of urgency
  2. Establish an effective guiding coalition
  3. Create a clear, appealing vision
  4. Communicate, communicate, communicate
  5. Remove obstacles (“empower”)
  6. Celebrate small wins
  7. Follow through with wave after wave of change
  8. Embed the change at the cultural level.

Lots of other writers and speakers have their own different ways of describing the processes of successful change initiatives, but I find Kotter’s analysis to be the most insightful and inspiring.

The main book that covers this eight stage process is “Leading Change” – a book that must rank high in the list of the most valuable business books ever written.

Subsequently, Kotter used the mechanism of an easily-read “cartoon book”, “Our Iceberg Is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions“, in order to provide a gentle but compelling introduction to his ideas. It’s a fable about penguins. But it’s a fable with real depth. (I noticed it and purchased a copy in the Inverness airport bookshop one day, and had finished reading it by the time my plane south landed at Gatwick. I was already resolved to find my copy of “Leading Change” and re-read it.)

As Kotter emphasises, the steps in the eight-stage change leadership process have mirror images which are the main eight reasons why change initiatives stumble:

  1. Lack of a sufficient sense of urgency;
  2. Lack of an effective guiding coalition for the change (an aligned team with the ability to make things happen);
  3. Lack of a clear appealing vision of the outcome of the change (otherwise it may seem too vague, having too many unanswered questions);
  4. Lack of communication for buy-in, keeping the change in people’s mind (otherwise people will be distracted back to other issues);
  5. Lack of empowerment of the people who can implement the change (lack of skills, wrong organisational structure, wrong incentives, cumbersome bureaucracy);
  6. Lack of celebration of small early wins (failure to establish momentum);
  7. Lack of follow through (it may need wave after wave of change to stick);
  8. Lack of embedding the change at the cultural level (otherwise the next round of management changes can unravel the progress made).

A few months ago, Kotter released yet another book on the subject of change initiatives that go wrong. Like “Our Iceberg Is Melting”, this is another slim book – only having 128 pages, and with large typeface, making it another very quick read. But, again, the ideas have real merit. This book is called “A sense of urgency“.

As the name implies, this book focuses more fully on the first stage of change initiatives. The biggest reason why significant change initiatives fail, in Kotter’s considered view, is because of a lack of:

a real sense of urgency – a distinctive attitude and gut-level feeling that lead people to grab opportunities and avoid hazards, to make something important happen today, and constantly shed low-priority activities to move faster and smarter, now.

Instead, most organisations (and most people) become stuck in a combination of complacency and what Kotter describes as “false urgency”:

  • Complacency is frequently fuelled by past successes and time-proven strengths – that may, however, prevent organisations from being fully aware of changes in circumstances, technologies, and markets;
  • False urgency involves more activity than productivity: “It is frenetic. It is more mindless running to protect themselves or attack others, than purposive focus on critical problems and opportunities. Run-run, meet-meet, talk-talk, defend-defend, and go home exhausted.”

Kotter provides a helpful list of questions to help organisations realise if they are suffering from over-complacency and/or false urgency:

  • Are critical issues delegated to consultants or task forces with little involvement of key people?
  • Do people have trouble scheduling meetings on important initiatives (“Because, well, my agenda is so full”)?
  • Is candour lacking in confronting the bureaucracy and politics that are slowing down important initiatives?
  • Do meetings on key issues end with no decisions about what must happen immediately (except the scheduling of another meeting)?
  • Are discussions very inwardly focused and not about markets, emerging technologies, competitors, and the like? …
  • Do people run from meeting to meeting, exhausting themselves and rarely if ever focusing on the most critical hazards or opportunities? …
  • Do people regularly blame others for any significant problems, instead of taking responsibility and changing? …

The centrepiece of “A sense of urgency” is a set of four tactics to increase a true sense of urgency:

  1. Bring the outside in. Reconnect internal reality with external opportunities and hazards. Bring in emotionally compelling data, people, video, sights, and sounds.
  2. Behave with urgency every day. Never act content, anxious, or angry. Demonstrate your own sense of urgency always in meetings, one-on-one interactions, memos, and email, and do so as visibly as possible to as many people as possible.
  3. Find opportunity in crises. Always be alert to see if crises can be a friend, not just a dreadful enemy, in order to destroy complaceny. But proceed with caution, and never be naive, since crises can be deadly.
  4. Deal with the NoNos. Remove or neutralise all the relentless urgency-killers: people who are not skeptics but who are determined to keep a group complacent or, if needed, to create destructive urgency.

The rest of the book fleshes out these tactics with examples (taken from Kotter’s extensive consulting and research experience) and additional checklists. To my mind, there’s a great deal to learn from here.

Footnote: Kotter’s emphasis on the topic of “real urgency” may seem to fly in opposition to one of the most celebrated messages of the literature on effectiveness, namely the principle that people should focus on matters that are important rather than matters that are merely urgent. In the renowned “first things first” language of Stephen Covey, people ought to prioritise “Quadrant two” (activities which are important but not urgent) over “Quadrant three” (activities with are urgent but not important).

To my mind, both Kotter and Covey are correct. We do need to start out by figuring what are the most important activities. And then we have to ensure that we keep giving sufficient attention to these activities. Kotter’s insight is that organisations and people can address this latter task by means of the generation of a sufficient sense of urgency around these activities. In other words, we should drive certain key targets out of Quadrant two into Quadrant one. That way, we’ll be more likely to succeed with our key change initiatives.

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