Kotter’s 8 Steps to Change: More Relevant Than Ever

Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.
– John Wooden

In 1996, John Kotter published Leading Change, which quickly became the seminal work in the change management space.

15 years later—an eon in the Internet time-space to which we have become accustomed—and Leading Change is still the work that most change management professionals will point to when asked “how to do it.” There have been some other blips on the radar in the change management discussion, most notably the high-intensity spotlight wielded by the Heath Bros, Chip and Dan, in Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard.

Yet everyone keeps coming back to Mr. Kotter. (welcome back!)

leading-change-kotterWhy? Because effecting change—real change—transformative change—is hard. Really hard.

And The Eight-Stage Process of Creating Major Change that Kotter spelled out in Leading Change has been proven to work better than most anything else when appropriately implemented. The Eight Steps give organizational leader/managers a clear map to follow when most are wandering in the dark as they face the challenges of non-linear acceleration of change as we move into the 21st century.

But this post is not intended to re-hash every aspect of the Eight Steps. Rather, I wanted to remind everyone how unique it is in this “management” space to have a book that has held up so well over time. So many flavour-of-the-week approaches to managing an organization have come and gone in the last fifteen years that we could, and have, fill a library with them.

The other, really unusual aspect of Leading Change as a cornerstone work, is that its relevance has only increased since publication. Business-as-usual did not pass this book by; it is virtually required reading for anyone who leads an organization today.

The Eight Step Process

For those who are not familiar with Kotter’s work, here is a list of his Eight Steps, with some recent comments that he has made on those issues that he finds to be critical for success (I’ll include a link to these comments when/if it becomes publicly available):

1. Establish a Sense of Urgency

  • This is the absolute starting point.
  • You must appeal to both the intellectual AND the emotional.
  • Repeatedly screaming at people “Your platform is burning, you are going to die!” does not work.
    • Threats lose their value.
    • It results in a demoralized workforce.
    • Talent leaves as soon as there is a good out.

2. Create a Guiding Coalition

  • If you want transformational change, you must create transformational leadership.
  • If you want transformational leadership, hierarchical-command/control structures will not work.
    • Good managers, utilizing good policies and practices, can create great results—but they cannot create transformational change.
  • Note the use of the term Coalition: if you want transformational leadership, this must represent a broad cross-section of people from all levels of the organization.
    • people who have their hearts in it
    • people who will provide leadership
    • people who will attack barriers
    • people who will get others on board
  • If you don’t do this right, it will effect everything else that follows.

3. Develop a Vision and Strategy

4. Communicate the Change Vision

  • It’s not likely that you will under-communicate a little bit; you will probably under-communicate 10x to 100x too much. And your initiative, no matter how well planned, will fail.

5. Empower Broad-Based Action

  • Give away authority. The hierarchy must give way to the network.

6. Generate Short-Term Wins

  • Make the wins real and they will be powerful.
  • If people don’t see results, cynicism will quickly follow.

7. Consolidate Gains and Produce More Change

  • Never let up!
    • You must maintain the urgency.
    • If you hand your initiative off to a change management “department” or “committee” — you will fail.
    • Don’t get discouraged, it might require cycling back and trying new things.
    • Don’t let your “command and control” genes take over.
  • It’s like tending a fire, you can’t start it and walk away.

8. Anchor New Approaches in the Culture

  • You don’t “change your culture” to create transformation.
  • It’s the reverse, if you want to create a culture change then go through the other seven steps — then, after success has been created, the outcome will be a change in the culture!

Management v. Leadership

I think it’s safe to say that we are all exhausted with the manager or leader debate. I’ll not waste too much time on that. However, a couple of quotes from Kotter that make it very clear; change management is a task for leaders.

Managers can define projects, develop measures, and monitor systems—they cannot create change.

“Leadership defines what the future should look like, aligns people with that vision, and inspires them to make it happen despite the obstacles.”

“…linking the discussion back to the engine that drives change—leadership—and in showing how a purely managerial mindset inevitably fails, regardless of the quality of people involved.”

Change Leadership

So, the question that spins out of all of this focus on leadership:

Is it time to change the term “change management”?

Would the process be more accurately conveyed if we started referring to it as “change leadership”?

Read the Book

Again, if you haven’t read Leading Change, and you have any interest in creating lasting change in an organizational environment, you really should pick up a copy.

Not only do you stand to gain some critical knowledge, I think you will be shocked at the prescience of this 15 year-old book.

updated 11 October 2011 – added a link to the recent Kotter webinar


note: this post originally appeared on the Delta Blog, 5 October 2011

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s