Speed vs. Urgency: Is Your Problem Big Enough?


“If not now, when?”

It’s a phrase I think about often. It speaks to having a sense of urgency, which from my perspective, is THE greatest driver of sustained success in any endeavor. As CEOs, we are all familiar with the importance of speed. Speed is about movement.

But urgency? Urgency is about belief.

A sense of urgency requires a belief in the significance of the problem you’re trying to solve. And a belief in your team’s ability to solve that problem.

As a CEO, it’s your job to help your team discover its sense of urgency. So to start, we must ask ourselves: “Is the problem we’re trying to solve big enough?” Why, one might ask, do I need a bigger problem to solve when my teams and resources may already be stretched solving the issues of the day?

Simple. You need a bigger problem to unlock the full potential of your people – and your enterprise. Here are 3 ways to facilitate that process.

“Companies that lack a sense of urgency grow stagnant and complacent, missing opportunities that upstarts will pounce on.”

1. Put yourself in the crosshairs. Make no mistake about it: Identifying and declaring that you and your team are going to solve whatever significant problem exists in your market today, places you, the CEO, right in the crosshairs of investors, the board and the “haters.” As a result, many CEOs emphasize things other than putting a big stake in the ground around solving a significant problem.

It’s safer. It’s more achievable.  Yet it comes with its own set of consequences.

Without a significant problem to solve, people – even great people – grow comfortable. Once that happens, it’s over. Perhaps not immediately, but it’s over nonetheless. Companies that lack a sense of urgency grow stagnant and complacent, missing opportunities that upstarts will pounce on. By putting themselves in the crosshairs, CEOs can ensure that they and their businesses remain sharp.

2. Ignite the passion of employees. Taking on a more pressing challenge will ignite the passion of your best people – and help you attract top talent. I’ve led my companies’ recruiting efforts for 25 years, and I can tell you one thing for certain: the most talented people aren’t motivated by money or status. They’re driven by the chance to solve our world’s biggest problems.

For top performers, winning isn’t enough. The stakes also have to be high. For employees in the middle of the curve, believing in the significance of the problem they’re trying to solve can lead to the type of engagement that leads to better performance.

3. Discover your weaknesses. Increasing the size or scope of the problem you’re trying to solve also will give you a better understanding of the weaknesses of your business. When you keep your company in its comfort zone, it’s easy to look past its weaknesses and mistakes. When you magnify your problem, you put your team under a microscope.

Who are your top performers? Does your team run away from problems or toward them? What are the talent gaps you need to fill? By taking on a more significant challenge, you’ll learn who is – and who isn’t – up to the task at hand. And if you or your employees don’t believe that your team is capable of solving the biggest problems facing your market, it’s time to change up the team.

4. Finding my biggest challenge. At Knewton, the company I lead, we’ve taken on one of the biggest challenges of all: helping all students succeed in college.

In the U.S., on-time college graduation rates are abysmally low. Still, students are paying a high price for poor results: collectively, they carry $1.3 trillion in student debt, and we still ask them to purchase $400 textbooks that don’t do enough to help them perform well academically.

Through technology that personalizes the learning experience for students, Knewton is doing for all learners what the best teachers have always done – tailor their instruction for each student’s needs. By taking advantage of the scale of technology, we’re able to price our products affordably, rendering textbooks – and the companies that make them – obsolete.

Without a sense of urgency, companies can’t act with the speed and purpose they need to win. By finding a more significant problem and strengthening your company’s belief in that problem, CEOs can increase their market opportunity, deliver better value to customers, attract and retain the best talent, and gain a better sense of where their company needs to improve to deliver on its promise.

So ask yourself today: If not now, when? And if not us, who?

Brian Kibby is the CEO of Knewton. With more than 20 years of leadership and executive experience in the education industry, Brian is a passionate driver of digital transformation in education, with deep experience in personalized learning technology and an unmatched record for generating results.