On July 16, 1969, the massive Saturn V rocket lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to deliver the astronauts of Apollo 11 to the moon for the first lunar landing. In a few weeks, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of this historic event.
During liftoff from the launch pad, the rocket’s five F-1 rocket engines ignited and produced 7.5 million pounds of thrust – equivalent to 160 million horsepower. I marvel at the tremendous amount of energy and force required to push the astronauts up and above the gravitational pull of the earth, into space, and to their goal of landing on the moon. From physics, we know that the gravitational pull varies by planet: Earth: 9.8 m/s2 (meters per second squared), Moon: 1.62 m/s2, Mars: 3.7 m/s2, and the Sun: 274 m/s2. Thus, the larger the mass and density of the planet, the greater the gravitational pull.
Organizations often have their own gravitational pull as people seek to avoid change and maintain the status quo. This often invisible force can lead to complacency and make leading large-scale change more difficult for leaders. John Kotter, an author and researcher of organizational change, made this warning to leaders: Never underestimate the magnitude of the forces that reinforce complacency and that help maintain the status quo. This blog post explores the sources of complacency in organizations and how leaders can raise urgency to better achieve their own moonshot change initiatives.
Sources of Complacency
Complacency towards organizational change exists for many reasons. According to Kotter, some sources of complacency include the absence of a major and visible crisis, an abundance of visible resources, low overall performance standards, an avoidance of real issues through low candor and low confrontation, and organizational structures that focus employees on narrow functional goals.
Complacent organizations have a culture of artificial harmony where people tend to over rely on internal sources for performance feedback and measurements and over focus on narrow functional goals at the expense of enterprise-wide goals. These processes and practices help to ensure the status quo remains in place.
How to Raise Urgency Levels
So how can leaders overcome the gravitational pull of complacency that weighs their organizations down and light a fire of urgency to change? According to Kotter, creating a strong sense of urgency usually calls for bold or even risky actions. Bold actions that reduce complacency may take the form of creating a crisis through the emergence of a close competitor, setting strategic targets so high they cannot be reached through current business as usual practices, and eliminating obvious examples of excess.
For a short case study of taking bold steps to create urgency, consider the United States Apollo space program. Eight years before astronauts from Apollo 11 walked on the Moon, Americans wrestled with the perception that we were losing the Space Race. The Soviet Union had already launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite four years earlier, and a Russian cosmonaut had already become the first man in space.
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy spoke to a crowd of 40,000 people at Rice University in Houston, Texas. His goal was to persuade the crowd to support the Apollo program – the national effort to land a man on the Moon. His powerful speech was called for bold steps and included the now famous tagline “we choose to go to the Moon”. Kennedy spoke about space as the new frontier, a sense of urgency, and American’s freedom to choose their destiny. The previous year, Kennedy met with Congress and proposed that the United States “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth”.
President Kennedy’s bold plan carried many risks. The plan to send astronauts into space and land on the Moon was very expensive and unproven for the United States. Plus, polls showed that 58% of Americans were opposed to the Apollo program. Notwithstanding the risks and costs, Kennedy’s bold plan won support, brought the United States out of complacency, and successfully reached his goal seven years after his speech at Rice University.
This example from history illustrates how Kennedy applied specific tactics to raise the urgency level and overcome complacency that enabled the United States to surpass our competitors and become a leader in space exploration. These tactics included creating a crisis by leveraging the perception that the United States was behind our competitors in the Space Race. Also, he set a shocking and high target to travel to the Moon and back by the end of the decade. These are just a few of the bold and risky steps that leaders should follow to raise the urgency level and overcome the gravitational pull of complacency in their organizations.
Leading Change by John P. Kotter (1996) HBS Press