By Tony Mulkern

Jeff Bezos, founder, chairman and CEO of Amazon, and the richest person in the world, recently said that he wants his employees to “be afraid” and to “wake up every morning terrified.”  Presumabaly he was exaggerating, because Bezos knows something about what motivates achievement, and terror is usually debilitating.  What he is referring to is the fifth of the Six Engines of Entrepreneurial Ascent®, namely, Sustaining a Sense of Urgency, which is at the heart of an entrepreneurial culture.  The opposite is a sense of complacency, the enemy of—and ironically the result of— every entrepreneur’s dream: success.

A first-rate discussion of this topic is found in John Kotter’s A Sense of Urgency, where he uses the dictionary definition of complacency as a “feeling of contentment or self satisfaction, especially with an unawareness of danger or trouble.”  Many examples from history and today’s news illustrate how complacency can be fatal:

  • European military experts were confident that World War I would be a short conflict, instead of the colossal catastrophe that it became, setting the stage for WW II.
  • Polaroid allowed digital cameras to make its once sensational instant camera obsolete.
  • Commercial banks allowed mortgage banking companies to take from them most residential lending.
  • Nokia the leader in flip phones and Blackberry the leader in mobile email devices lost market leadership to iPhones and Androids.
  • Prior to 9/11, top intelligence officials failed to follow up on FBI reports that certain Middle Eastern students in Arizona said they wanted to learn to fly but not to land and that some wanted to learn about airport security measures.
  • Book stores chains, some now extinct, took weeks to fulfill an order for a book that Amazon would deliver to your home in days, if not overnight.
  • United Launch Alliance—a joint venture of aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed—lost its monopoly on U.S. Air Force satellite launches after tiny, upstart Space X sued.
  • Sears, a pioneer in the mail-order catalog, is near bankruptcy in the face of competition from Amazon, essentially an on-line catalogue company.

A whole book could be filled with such examples.  But the point is clear.  Complacency comes down to excessive confidence in one’s expertise and a belief that one’s product or service, once successful, cannot be surpassed.  A sense of urgency, by contrast, is rooted in the belief that one’s position, however superior at the moment, may suddenly shift.  Everything is temporary, failure is always possible, and nothing but intense, intelligent focus and relentless energy to innovate and improve will make and sustain success.

This sense of urgency should not be confused with what Kotter calls a “false sense of urgency,” characterized by useless worry and unproductive busyness. This is why the “terror” to which Bezos refers in jest, it is hoped, is counter-productive. Terror narrows vision and leads to panic.  Terror-based action is exhausting and unsustainable.  Action based upon a sense of urgency comes from vision, confidence, courage and determination.  To use Kotter’s phrase, “a true sense of urgency is a set of feelings, a compulsive determination to move, and win, now.”

The challenge is to sustain a true sense of urgency when there is little apparent cause for fear, no overt threat, and when everyone can easily feel as though they “have it made” because they have already won and may indeed still be winning. Meeting this challenge requires awareness of the causes of complacency.

Kotter attributes complacency almost entirely to past success, as though the latter were a kind of Trojan horse, a trophy containing the means of destruction of the winner.  Observations of organizational behavior indicate, however, that there are other interrelated sources, which include:

  • Fatalism—a belief that the future is already set or that it is too late and that no one can make a difference.
  • Fear of failure and a consequent lack of effort.
  • Fear of success—if I accomplish more, more will be expected.
  • Fatigue at being dismissed as an alarmist or a pessimist by those who champion the complacent groupthink.
  • A sense of powerlessness stemming from what psychologists call “splitting”—since I cannot control everything, I cannot control anything.
  • Different rates of tolerance for change and risk.
  • A love of maximum stability and predictability—a trait so foreign to entrepreneurs that they may have difficulty believing that it is even possible.

Given the formidable array of factors listed above, what are Bezos and other entrepreneurs to do to avoid what seems historically to be the inevitable slide toward complacency, mediocrity, and obsolescence?  Some suggestions, based upon research and observation, follow:

  • Evaluate whether your “win” is real or illusory. Before taking possession of the wooden horse with saboteurs hidden inside, if only the Trojans had asked, “How could the entire Greek army and navy disappear overnight? Why not check to see if they are hiding nearby?”  Consider more recent Trojan horses.  Daimler bought Chrysler for $36 billion in 1998, and sold it for $7 billion in 2007.  Bank of America bought Countrywide for $4 billion in 2008, an acquisition that is estimated to have cost it $40 billion after losses for poor lending practices.  In 2015 Yahoo! wrote off losses of $712 million from its failed Tumblr acquisition. Examples of this kind could fill another book.
  • Listen to the critics, skeptics and pessimists. Not everyone thought it was a great idea to bring that bizarre contraption inside the gates of Troy, an action which led to the fall of the city.
  • Clarify what is at stake. Provide the team with lessons from the past and emphasize the future dangers and the opportunities.  Read business  history and the news.  If you believe that your employees cannot handle the truth, you are cultivating complacency.
  • Innovate with a 360 degree SWOT analysis. We all are familiar with the 360 feedback process and also with the SWOT—strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats—analysis done by senior teams at planning sessions. Here’s something new: combine the two processes and obtain anonymous feedback on how the employees at every level see the company’s position in the market.  Employees have friends and family members working at various organizations and are frequently looking for better career opportunities.  Some of your employees own stock in your competitors and/or are their customers.  They know more about the competitive environment than we often give them credit for.
  • Challenge the planning process. Most strategic planning extrapolates from last year’s numbers for incremental growth and throws in a few initiatives to strengthen the status quo, within a short time-frame.  Long-term planning is out of fashion, but without it the questions that create urgency may not be asked:  “What will we be like in five or ten years?  Will we still exist?  What should we do about that now?”  If the answer to the last question is, “stop asking these questions,” then you know you have a complacency problem.
  • Challenge yourself. Bezos can rightfully ask for a sense of urgency from his employees because he consistently demonstrates it himself in multiple enhancements, initiatives, new services, and acquisitions.  His latest remarks include the prediction that one day Amazon will fail and go bankrupt and that his objective is to postpone this as long as possible.  If your employees imitated your behavior, would you say they acted with a sense of urgency?

Finally, conversations between top executives and customers are among the best means to prevent complacency.  Just ask members of Congress who hold town hall meetings with constituents during recesses. Beware of complacency regarding your customer feedback systems.  The widespread use of short feedback forms after every minor transaction is becoming tiresome to consumers and perhaps has run its useful course.  Be more creative. Talk to customers—and former customers—and listen intently when they talk back.  Many customers of AT&T and DirecTV would love to tell the company how to improve, but they seem to be an untapped resource.  Just do not expect customers to tell you how to solve their problems. After all, the personal computer was not invented on the basis of market surveys reporting that customers wanted one.  The famous innovation of FedEx was not the result of a public demand for delivery from any point to any point in the U.S. overnight, something thought to be impossible.  Instead, the pioneers in these fields observed people’s everyday struggles and designed innovative tools to solve problems that were generally assumed to be insoluble, thus producing enormous wealth and productivity.  That was acting with a sense of urgency.