Over the weekend, we returned home from a week-long holiday vacation to the occasional high-pitched, short chirp of the smoke detector that signaled that the battery was getting low.
It was late – almost midnight. The kids were exhausted and needed to get to bed. For some reason, the batteries in smoke detectors are not easy to access or change. And they seem to be the only device in the house that requires a 9-volt battery, which explains why we had no spares anywhere in the house.
The last thing either of us wanted to do after 13 hours in the car was to drive to the store to buy a battery, and then climb up a ladder to change it. But, of course, we did.
The chirping smoke detector can teach us a few things about creating a sense of urgency that compels change:
- Urgency has a purpose. In the unlikely scenario that the battery dies, the power goes out, and there is a fire, we would have a potentially lethal scenario for my family. As annoying as it is, the chirping alarm is designed to ensure our safety.
- Urgency comes from the need or desire to stop experiencing the unpleasant. If the chirping was at all tolerable, we might just try to sleep through it.
- Urgency is continual. If the chirp was a one-time occurrence, either we might miss it, or we could just continue about our business when it’s done. Urgency needs to be unrelenting.
- Urgency is not the same as an emergency. It should not crowd out other important activities. You don’t have to drop everything to take care of it, but you’re not going to rest while it still needs to be addressed. If the alarm had actually been going off, that would have been an emergency.
- You have to feel it. The chirping could have been going on for a week and we wouldn’t know it. We didn’t hear it until we were in the house. Even if we had had a remote device that told us the alarm was chirping while we were out of the house, we wouldn’t have rushed home to change the battery. Since we weren’t there to be annoyed by it, it could wait.
- You also need to know what to do. The chirping is just maddening unless you know what it means and how to make it stop. Urgency without a clear direction to get away from the unpleasantness just makes you feel helpless. Corollary: The change you make must alleviate the sense of urgency.
- Urgency requires boundaries for acceptable ways to alleviate it. Urgency is the need to get away from something bad. Besides changing the battery, to avoid the noise we could have chosen to stay in a hotel (an expensive choice) or to unplug the alarm entirely (a dangerous choice). If other alternatives are available to alleviate the sense of urgency, then they need to be less attractive than the desired behavior.
The battery has been changed, and we can forget about it until next time. Although now, we have five extra 9-Volt batteries ready.