Joseph A Hopper

Joseph A Hopper is Principal Consultant at the Theory of Constraints Institute ( and Executive Director at Sunstone Business School ( Prior to this, he headed Corporate Development at NIIT Ltd. where he oversaw the strategy, budgeting & review processes for 13 independent business units.

Creating an Emergency that You can Feel Proud of

Joseph A Hopper


Web_Cover_Creating Emergencies for Managing Change

Sometimes “managing change” feels like roller skating on tar… the harder you push, the more you get stuck. Everyone praises your “inspired initiative” in public. But just when you need their support most, it evaporates into thin air.

The fact is, most critical corporate initiatives go the way of the dinosaur, thanks to nothing more than a perceived lack of urgency.

What can you do when people are quick to commit yet slow to act?

The Case for Emergencies

  • – What if you never had to level a threat or raise your voice?
  • – What if “external” forces mobilised your people much faster than you yourself ever could?
  • – What if… there was an EMERGENCY?!

Emergencies – used judiciously – represent the ultimate change management hack.

How to Architect a First-Rate Emergency

Design your Emergency according to the Goldilocks Principle – not too big, not too small, but “just right!”

Aim for maximum threat with barely enough time, people, funds, etc. to survive. By ensuring sufficient (but not excessive) inputs, your team will be motivated to give their level best and really make it happen.

Let’s examine three cases in point.

Rocky Roads Ahead?

Web 1_PotholesThe situation in Hyderabad was getting ugly. Like most Indian cities at the time, road construction quality was poor. During the annual monsoon, public highways were washed out and became riddled with potholes.

Commuting times almost doubled. Damage to automobile axles and suspensions was on the rise. The number of back-related injuries reached at an all-time high.

On the surface, there was nothing that the municipal corporation could really do to address this problem. The latest asphalt technologies and engineering skills were not available locally. Contractors and government workers together formed a nexus that could delay road construction efforts almost indefinitely. It seemed that there was no hope for the hassled commuter.

But yet, a solution emerged; and it proved to be quite simple: cultivating first-rate emergencies! Hosting large national and international events brought just the right mix of VIP pressure and fear of losing face to jolt the rusty wheels of the infrastructure machine to rapid action. For example:

  • – Afro-Asian Games (2003)
  • – Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) National Executive Meet (2004)
  • – Indian National Congress Meet (2006)
  • – World Military Games (2007)


These events were hosted on the side of the city far away from the airport. Hence, roads across the length and breadth of the city had to be rebuilt promptly to avoid embarrassment.

In addition, the mega-events were scheduled after the close of the annual monsoon. This restricted available working-time and left most of the remaining months in the year free for driving on well-paved surfaces. When it comes to emergencies, timing is everything.

Each emergency shook up the sleepy contractors and government officials in a way that no amount of direct pressure ever could. During most of my six years in Hyderabad, we enjoyed excellent conditions on the main connecting roads despite all odds, due to this well-orchestrated series of emergencies.

Leveraging External Emergencies

Just because your neck is on the line doesn’t mean that other people will view a situation with the same degree of urgency. Often, they are caught up in the whirlwind of day-to-day activities and unable to contribute when you need their support.

Web_3Consider the time when you tried everything. Your new initiative was pure brilliance. Furthermore, you consulted all the constituents, created ‘buy-in’, defined the current state/future state/transition state, appointed sponsors and team leaders, and even used Failure Mode Effect Analysis (FMEA) to de-risk. Ultimately, you left no stone unturned to make this project a ‘smashing’ success.

Yet nothing moved.

Suppose that while checking email, you realise that a group of senior executives is visiting your division from the head office next week. You might choose one of three possible responses:

  • Option A: Curse the CEO who keeps prying into unnecessary details of your work.
  • – Option B: Prepare a flashy PPT deck to impress the visitors with your forward progress.
  • Option C: Label your project ‘mission critical’ and appoint a team of direct reports to share an update to the head office visitors. Define the update parameters in such a way that the team can show significant progress if they work very hard between now and then. Send a mail to the CEO (copying them) and reveal ‘how much your team is looking forward to updating them on a ground-breaking new project’.


Which response would you choose? The latter option, like a well-practiced judo move, applies direct pressure at the place where it counts the most. Rather than exhausting your own energy to push the team, you merely redirect the energy from the emergency. By backing your team into a corner, they now have little choice but to act, and act fast.

Piggybacking on Internal Emergencies

As elegant and effective as this method might sound, leveraging external emergencies like the one above only works sporadically at best.

Web_2What about those urgent situations where you cannot afford to wait around for lightning to strike? Should you put your mission-critical project on hold just because no mega event is waiting in the wings?

Perhaps you could create such opportunities – without waiting.

M.G. Agarwal, Founder of Grow Business Consulting, was asked to turn around the performance of a unit of a large manufacturing company. Although there was good scope for improvement, the management team always seemed busy – attending meetings, putting out fires, struggling to hold on to current levels of performance. The team had literally no bandwidth for taking the necessary preventative actions that were required to solve problems over the long term.

Pushing or “forcing” the team into action seemed almost sure to fail. Given a choice, people do what they want to do – not what they are asked to do.

When polled, every manager’s topmost complain was, “going home late is ruining my family life.” Each manager was working hard to support a family they rarely ever got to see! Perhaps he could somehow align his agenda with the emergencies brewing at home! He asked if theyWeb_4_Do-It-Yourself Emergency Cheat Sheet would be willing to work late hours if this problem can be totally eliminated within three months. All agreed, and drew up the following plan:

  1. Month one
  2. Everybody leaves office at 17:30 for ONE day per week.
  3. Month two
  4. Everybody leaves office at 17:30 for TWO days per week.
  5. Month three
  6. Everybody leaves office at 17:30 for FOUR days per week.
  7. Month four
  8. Everybody leaves office at 17:30 EVERY single day of the week.

Of course it was necessary to show action and intent. The first few times, he had to convince the CEO to leave early. This ensured that the others would also feel comfortable leaving office.

M.G. now had everyone’s attention. With a clear vision in mind, the team was driven to chase him for improvement projects rather than the other way around.

By piggybacking on the work-life balance emergency brewing back home, he created a win-win situation and received grateful calls from quite a few of the managers’ spouses as well!

In Summary

Sometimes life hurls emergencies at us. During such times, we can choose to either react defensively or leverage the emergency to motivate and mobilise people around us.

On the other hand, we cannot afford to wait for emergencies to fall into our lap. We must actively cultivate the natural emergencies all around us, whether internal or external.

If we anticipate crisis – and help people realise how it affects them – miracles can happen. Under such circumstances, people willingly give their best. After all, it is THEIR emergency!


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