I’m not sure if that’s the exact quote, but it’s the gist of an idea Gary Christensen, former CEO of Pella Corporation, communicated to create a sense of urgency. When do we tend to be most “on top of our game”? When there is a challenge…an obstacle to overcome…a new market to be fastest into…a threat to our existence. If you get complacent that things are going well, “create crisis” to work on the next big thing.

Part of this mentality is established by people and organizations who recognize the opportunity to improve, that they have more potential to contribute to their vocation, family, or society. I appreciate people who have done great things, but then humbly recognize that, “hey, I’m not perfect, I can do better.” It’s usually these people that are most successful…the best parents, best athletes, best business people, best spouses. I was reminded of this today when I read an article in Lean Insider which quoted a Nissan VP as saying “we’re a very self-challenging company; we are never happy.” Now, I would argue that being “never happy” is probably an inappropriate use of creating a crisis. I think “self-challenging” is good, and maybe a better way of stating “never happy” would be “never content”, and then I would be fully on-board with his quote. But it reminded me how much I like to be around people who see potential to grow. It’s exciting to be around these people because life isn’t static…things are going to change…maybe not necessarily always for the better, but over time always in the direction of progress.

While I personally like the “creating crisis” idea (my best efforts often occur under pressure), I think it has to be carefully employed to be constructive. A constructive personal example for me is staying in shape. Sometimes, if I don’t have a “crisis” out in front of me it is difficult to stay motivated to work out. My wife and I will sign up for different running events (half marathons and other distances that are less than completely punishing) to have something to shoot for. These are the types of events you do not like to show up at the starting line unprepared for, so it keeps me motivated ahead of time to hit the pavement a few times a week. This is constructive use of “crisis”. There is a potential flip-side, of course. If “creating crisis” is adding undue stress, fear, or anxiety and interfering with personal/family life, it’s probably not worth it (see “never happy” above). Finding the balance is up the individual. Allow enough challenge into your life to stay motivated, but not so much that’s its a personal detriment or negatively impacts those around you.

Postscript: After writing this, later in the day I read this article in Business Week about Toyota “retooling” itself to avoid complacency to stay ahead of competition, like GM, who they just passed up.