“The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second-best time is now!” – Chinese Proverb

I was introduced to this Chinese Proverb when I was 19 years old. Let me explain.

I was preparing for my Shaolin Kung Fu brown belt test, but it wasn’t going well. Between my military day job, my part-time job at Independent Records, teaching an intro to computers class and taking four college classes, I did not have the time to study. As the test day approached, I was not ready.

I went to my Shifu David (my martial arts teacher) with my tail between my legs to explain my situation. As I shared, he kept coming back to the fact that I was unprepared… regardless of my excuse. I wanted validation and understanding. I wanted a little empathy, but my Shifu was holding me accountable.

He said: “If you wanted this badly enough, you would have found a way to be ready.” I knew he was right, and I had no rebuttal. Then he said, “So, what are you going to do now?”

I was dejected and at a loss for words. That’s when he said, “Tim, the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second-best time is now!” Then he walked away, leaving me with my thoughts.

From that day forward, this quote has stayed with me. I understood in that moment that you need to have a sense of urgency in life, especially when facing the need to enact or react to change. Nothing significant in life is accomplished without a sense of urgency.

Act Today

I have come to believe that many of us feel that we always have tomorrow, and so we wait. We become complacent. We procrastinate on getting started or taking the next step or making a hard decision. Just like I thought I could study for my brown belt tomorrow until I ran out of time.

Consider how a lack of urgency plays out daily…

Why must we have a heart attack before we start living a healthier life?

Why do we endure jobs that we hate before we decide to move on?

Why do we take two months before we get all the required individuals together to launch the next major change initiative?

Why do we fail to see all the warning signs before we realize that we are out of business?

In both our professional and personal lives, it can be challenging to find our rhythm to reach deep and make the decision to act now, and I believe it’s largely because we lack the urgency to see our change through.

It’s why we see disturbing statistics like:

  • 70 percent of corporate change initiatives fail,
  • 61 percent of IT projects fail,
  • Almost 80 percent of digital transformation directives fail,
  • Only 8 percent of people achieve their desired goals,
  • And the list goes on.

To turn these numbers around and catalyze the change we wish to see, we MUST establish a real sense of urgency. We must plant that tree today. We must overcome our natural tendencies of complacency, and we must avoid creating false urgency.

Related Reading: All Desired Change Starts with You

The dictionary tells us that urgency means “of pressing importance.” When people have a sense of urgency, they act on critical issues now and not when it’s convenient! Not eventually and not when it fits nicely into a schedule. It means starting now and making progress every single day.

Finding the Urgency

In John Kotter’s 8-Step Process for Leading Change, he talks about how to create a sense of urgency when trying to spark change. If you are not yet familiar with Kotter’s model, click here for a quick primer. His first step in leading meaningful change starts with creating a sense of urgency by identifying and understanding the importance of the change.

I had many opportunities to put Kotter’s model and urgency to the test. In one such change initiative affectionately dubbed, “Project Assimilate,” (Star Trek fans might get the reference) our corporate growth was stalling, and we found our systems and process would not allow us to scale. They were a bottleneck. We had a deep need to professionalize our organization, improve and streamline operations, standardize documentation, create best practice guidelines, and retrain our staff.

You May Also Like: Getting Comfortable with Change

Our leadership team realized that we could not wait. We had a severe problem, and it would grow more serious if we failed to act. We made Project Assimilate our most important initiative. In fact, our only ambition. We came together and identified the critical areas of improvement. We broke those significant areas of improvement into smaller tasks (we started with well over 100 individual tasks). We established an aggressive timeline of 100 days.

We created a war room dedicated to monitoring project status. In this room, we literally wrote every task on the wall, and we made daily updates. We met weekly to update each other on our progress and made or reasserted commitments for the following week.  

We finished Project Assimilate in 100 days and radically transformed our organization in the process. After slogging through a year of modest growth, the completion of Project Assimilate allowed us to double the size of our organization in 18 months. We would have failed to grow if we hadn’t acted with urgency.

We live in an age where change and the need for change is accelerating. Keeping pace with the rate of change requires a rigorous focus on creating urgency and never settling for business as usual. However, my experience has shown that a real sense of urgency is rare. In fact, complacency and false urgency (being busy for the sake of being busy) are instead the natural state of affairs. Urgency must be created and cultivated to activate lasting transformation.

After my Kung Fu class all those years ago, I reflected on the intensity of my Shifu’s words and the urgency of his message. I realized that I had been taught a powerful lesson that went far beyond the four walls of our practice center.

The next day, I planted that tree and connected with my Shifu, recommitting to my practice. I found a way to juggle all my obligations and made the time to prepare. After a month of rigorous study, I was awarded my brown belt.


Are you ready to act today and enact change? Join us Nov. 21 at the ON Leadership Conference, designed to give you the opportunity to explore how to embrace change moments with greater confidence and clarity. Grab the details and register here!