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


Managers, it’s Time for an Easter Egg Hunt

I have two kids.

They love kid things – colouring, bikes, skating, dolls, birthday parties, video games, dancing, hockey, braids. All the usual stuff. And they really love holiday celebrations, with the Easter egg hunt coming in very near the top of the list.

It has always been fun for my wife and I to set up the hunt. We’re plastic egg people. I know, it’s not traditional – yes, we have a fake Christmas tree too – but it’s convenient and let’s us mix things up with the treats.

But here’s the deal. As the kids get older, setting up the hunt gets more and more challenging. Parents, you know what I’m talking about.

When they were 3 years old, we would just walk around the yard and put plastic eggs down wherever we felt like it. Everything was out in the open and easy to spot. Yet they still would not see all of the brightly coloured eggs. Why? They would just walk around, head down, staring at the ground in front of wherever their body ended up pointing. Egg was a foot off the ground sitting on a swing? Couldn’t see it – it wasn’t where their attention was focussed.

But with time and the hard-won experience of multiple Easter adventures, they learned to take in more of their environment. Perhaps the eggs were above the ground, maybe even above their heads – higher than they could reach without climbing. They realized that Mom & Dad even put eggs in places that they couldn’t find without making an effort to get to places where they had never been before.

Now we have to work to find places that are challenging for our little bloodhounds to find. Why bother? It’s not as fun when it’s easy.

The Peter Principle – not Peter Cottontail

As a manager, time and experience have the same effect on you.

As so often happens, The Peter Principle placed me in a manager’s position before I had acquired the emotional maturity and life experience needed to be really effective at leading a group of humans toward a common goal.

I was so inexperienced that I just couldn’t see some serious problems that were right there in front of me – out in the open. They may as well have been trapped in a big pink egg and sitting on a swing seat. I was focussed on the ground in front of me.

But I didn’t get fired, and time and hard-won experience led to some inevitable growth. I learned to sit back, relax, and scan the environment with a practiced eye. And, eventually, I could pick out those bits of colour where there shouldn’t be any.

Still, I didn’t grow into a real and effective leader for my team and manager for my department until I got off of my seat, out of my office, and started looking in the places where I had never been before. It wasn’t easy. Sometimes it was scary to go into those places. But eventually – like everything that is worthwhile – I struggled through and I learned.

It’s Time for Your Easter Egg Hunt

Here’s my challenge to you as we head into the egg hunting season – get off of your seat, out of your office, and go looking in those uncomfortable places where the real challenges and problems for your team will be found.

  • We have been trained to provide consistent and clear feedback to our direct reports. When is the last time that you asked for their feedback on your performance? Do you think that they will feel confident and secure enough to provide you with honest feedback? There’s a nice, cozy dark place to start in. Nothing like a little dose of self-awareness to rattle our assumptions.
  • Do you know the short and long term goals of each of your staff? Have you ever asked this question and given sufficient time, space, and – most important – attention to allow the individual to develop a comprehensive answer? Do they have learning and development plans in place to support these goals?
  • Do you understand the preferred working and communication style of each of your team members? Are your team members clear on your preferred working and communication styles? Are you aware of the importance of generational differences in these preferences?
  • Do your employees believe that you “have their back”? When trouble appears do they feel like they are on their own, or are they part of team that pulls together and has a leader that will work for the greater good of the team – not for his/her own personal benefit?
  • Does your team trust you? How can you be sure?

There are many more challenges that could be added to this list. The point is, you’ll never know if you don’t search.

The answers won’t be in plastic eggs sitting out in the open – they’ll be difficult to find. But that’s ok, it’s not as fun when it’s easy.

note: this post originally appeared on the Delta Blog, 21 April 2011

Tools for Managers: The PESTLE Analysis

In a previous post, we discussed the use of SWOT Analysis and it’s usefulness as a framework for discussing the internal and external environment that an organization faces.  I would like to extend that discussion here to introduce the PESTLE Analysis – another framework used to guide your thinking as you participate in strategic evaluations.

You might recall that the ‘O’ and ‘T’ of the SWOT Analysis (Opportunities and Threats) focussed on the external issues impacting the firm.  The PESTLE Analysis is similar to SWOT in that it provides a framework to guide your discussions.  However, where the PESTLE differs is in its focus on the external environment.

And, it’s clearly an acronym – so what does it represent?








Here we have a list of factors that are external to the competencies and capabilities of the organization and can help you move logically through an evaluation of the external world in which you operate.  This framework was originally referred to as the PEST Analysis, but was expanded to PESTLE over the past ten years as Legal and Environmental factors gained increasing importance.  In fact, there are some in the strategy and analysis business who are encouraging people to move to STEEPLED in reaction to the current environment for greater emphasis on ‘Ethical’ concerns and ‘Demographics’.


What is happening politically in the environment in which you operate – these issues can take on a community, regional, national, or international perspective? A few months ago we might have shrugged our shoulders and thought, “Meh – nothing ever really changes.”  But I think the events of the past couple of months in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, etc., will have changed the minds of a great many people on that front.

Some issues to guide your discussion:

  • political stability
  • government structure
  • trade policy
  • tax policy
  • lobby impacts
  • local perceptions and attitudes
  • regional conflict


What is happening within the macroeconomy in which you operate – locally, regionally, nationally, globally?  Is it in decline, growth, recession, bubble status?

Our slow emergence from the global economic meltdown has provided a wakeup call for many who had come to expect that the good times would continue unchecked.  The level of expertise in currency management techniques within Canadian management circles has matured radically over the past two years.

Other aspects for economic awareness:

  • economic growth
  • interest rates
  • inflation
  • currency valuations
  • credit availability
  • employment rates


What is happening socially in the arena in which you operate – locally, regionally, nationally, globally?  Are cultural norms changing?  The coming change in the make-up of our workforce and the potential for an Intergenerational Divide is an example of a sociological challenge that our leaders will soon be facing.

Other examples of social factors:

  • demographics
  • skilled labour
  • education
  • health care
  • attitudes toward work
  • quality of life


What is happening within the technology sphere that can have a significant impact upon your operations?  If asked in 2005, would you have agreed that there would be an online social network that had 500 million members in 2010?

Some issues surrounding technology:

  • new research
  • rate of change
  • IT implementation in your area
  • product life cycles
  • government research funding
  • changes in Internet  use – service disintermediation, video and voice delivery, social networks
  • mobile telephony penetration and development – mobile applications, geolocation, near field communications
  • automation


An added facet to the original PEST model, this is in response to the increasing importance of the regulation and legislation on operations.  Maturity and appropriate enforcement of financial regulations will often form the baseline analysis for foreign direct investment.

  • tax law
  • trade
  • employment
  • security
  • resource acquisition


The second addition to the PEST model, this item also reflects the importance of environmental issues on nearly the operations of nearly any organization.  Some firms are adopting environmental impact as a key differentiator in their strategic development.

  • local regulation
  • international treaties
  • public perception
  • local climate concerns
  • client values


Again, like the SWOT, the PESTLE framework provides a tool to help you in guiding your discussion of the important external factors that can impact your organization.  However, some of the same weaknesses persist:

  • It is a “snapshot” analysis – findings will change over time, sometimes from day-to-day.
  • It will be as variable as the number of people involved in the discussion.
  • Be careful not to make sweeping judgments of future states on small data sets.

However, this can be a valuable tool in directing the analysis when used appropriately.  In fact, the SWOT – fuelled by the PESTLE – can be very effective in driving Scenario Planning activities.

If you would like to dig deeper into this tool, the RapidBI website has an excellent discussion and template for using the PESTLE Analysis.

note: this post originally appeared on the Delta Blog, 15 March 2011

Are Your Employees Engaged? Are You Engaging Your Employees?

The discussion around employee engagement has been loud – and growing to deafening proportions – over the past several years.

Employee engagement has become the metric of preference (pdf) for HR and OD professionals as high engagement has been linked to remarkable profits, productivity, retention, and client engagement, while active disengagement leads to significant losses on multiple fronts.  In fact, our own Greg Tricklebank notes that, “Given the strategic importance of Employee Engagement as an internal management lever, it is worth some effort to understand and measure it as accurately as possible.”

The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat specifically breaks out Employee Engagement as one of the key components of the Management Accountability Framework.  And the Clerk of the Privy Council, Wayne Wouters, points to Employee Engagement as one the top five priorities for in 2010-11 in his Annual Report to the Prime Minister.

Given all of the hype regarding the importance of engaged employees, the question that quickly follows for most managers: “how do I measure employee engagement in my organization?”

Don’t Re-invent the Wheel

A small amount of time spent researching this topic will reveal a seeming constellation of options and opinions.  However, there are a couple of proven resources with deep statistical validation to support their use that have been created by Gallup Consulting and The Conference Board.

The Gallup instrument:

  1. I know what is expected of me at work.
  2. I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right.
  3. At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.
  4. In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.
  5. My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.
  6. There is someone at work who encourages my development.
  7. At work, my opinions seem to count.
  8. The mission/purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.
  9. My associates (fellow employees) are committed to doing quality work.
  10. I have a best friend at work.
  11. In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress.
  12. This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.

The Conference Board “Employee Engagement Barometer”:

  1. I am proud to work for (company name).
  2. Overall, I enjoy working for my immediate supervisor.
  3. My job gives me a feeling of accomplishment.
  4. Overall, I am satisfied with my job.
  5. My job is interesting.
  6. I am motivated to contribute more than what is expected of me in my job.
  7. I am not currently planning on leaving (company name).
  8. I would feel comfortable referring a good friend to (company name) for employment.

Using either of these instruments will provide the manager with reliable information regarding the employees’ attitudes.

The Manager’s Side of the Equation

What I would like to see, however, is a validated measuring instrument that the organization can apply to its leaders and managers regarding their attitudes and behaviours.  Something like this might be useful to hold a mirror up to these leaders so that they can better understand their impact:

  1. My employees are proud to work for (organization name).
  2. My direct reports enjoy working for me.
  3. My employees have the materials and equipment that they need to do their job to the best of their ability.
  4. I value the opinions of my employees.
  5. I regularly speak with my direct reports and discuss their plans for professional development.
  6. My employees know where they stand with me at all times – they know exactly where I feel their strengths and weaknesses lie.
  7. My employees are committed to doing quality work.
  8. My employees are motivated to contribute more than what is expected of them in their jobs.
  9. My direct reports are not planning to leave my unit or the company.
  10. I provide my employees with the opportunities they need to learn and grow.
  11. My employees feel a sense of accomplishment in their jobs.
  12. Overall, my employees are satisfied with their jobs.

What do you think?  Do you think there would be value in applying questions like this to the leaders within the organization?  Would it be interesting to compare and contrast the reactions to these questions between the two groups?

note: this post originally appeared on the Delta Blog, 15 February 2011

Re-visiting the SWOT Analysis

The first implementation of the SWOT Analysis seems to have been put to use somewhere in Southern France roughly 28,000 years ago by a local cave dweller who was evaluating the wisdom of pursuing a strategic move to the hunting of saber tooth cats.  At least it seems, to those who pay attention to the business publishing industry, to have been around that long.

The long history of SWOT

Actually, the use of SWOT has been linked back to a series of conferences held at Stanford University in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  Or it came from the Harvard Business School during the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Or it was formalized and accepted in it’s current form during the 1980’s.  The point is, in terms of business training and writing, it has been around “forever”.

So why hasn’t this tool faded away like so many other business strategy flavour-of-the-week tools?

It is simple to comprehend and apply very quickly – while still providing a framework for some reasonably deep and nuanced thinking on strategic issues.

What is SWOT?

SWOT is a framework typically used to evaluate the ability of an organization or firm to deal effectively with its environment.

The format is a quadrant-based matrix for evaluation with sections comprised of:

S: Strength – This is something that the organization/firm/group is good at doing or a characteristic that gives it an important capability.  It can be a skill, a competence, or a resource.  Maintain and build upon these:

  • best product
  • great HR practices
  • your location
  • superior technology
  • brand recognition
  • customer service
  • consumer experience
  • great managers

W: Weakness – The opposite of Strength.  Something that the organization/firm/group lacks, does poorly, or a condition that puts it at a disadvantage.  A weakness may or may not make an organization competitively vulnerable, depending on how much it matters in the competitive battle.  Eliminate, quarantine, or minimize these:

  • think the opposite of everything in the Strength list!

O: Opportunity – Any favourable situation in the organization’s environment.  It is usually a trend or a change of some kind, or an overlooked need that increases demand for a product or service.  Seek ways to capture these:

  • emerging new markets
    • internet
    • international
    • new segments
  • new technologies
  • partnering opportunities
  • exiting competition
  • cheaper inputs

T: Threat – Any unfavourable situation in the organization’s environment that is potentially damaging to its strategy.  It could be a barrier, a constraint, or anything that might cause problems. Mitigate or avoid these:

  • new competition
  • shifting consumer preferences
  • currency fluctuation
  • political environment
  • regulations

Internal v. External

The other important aspect in evaluating this matrix is noting that the “Strengths and Weaknesses” components are internal to the firm while the “Opportunities and Threats” are external to the organization.

Or, viewed another way:

Internal = Controllable Factors

External = Uncontrollable Factors

SWOT Quandrants


A basic list of items to provide a catalyst for your discussions:

  • markets
  • competition
  • financial resources
  • facilities
  • talent
  • technology
  • communication
  • services
  • management
  • culture
  • technical  trends
  • political environment
  • social environment
  • economy

It’s just a tool

Always bear in mind that the SWOT Analysis is just another tool to use as you refine your strategic thinking.

Because the premise is easily grasped, it can be very valuable to use in a group setting.  By engaging many people, the tool can be effective at uncovering a variety of items under each category that one person, working alone, might not have discovered.

However, this same simplicity can undermine the results.  It is a highly subjective exercise, and, given independently to ten people, will return ten different results.  It is also highly dependent on short-term data – this is not an activity that is done one day and is still applicable two months later.

Ultimately, you should think of the SWOT Analysis as a tool to guide your strategic thinking – not to direct it.

What’s your experience with this tool?  Have you used it effectively or been disappointed with the results?

note: this post originally appeared on the Delta Blog, 21 January 2011

7 Steps to Straightforward Organizational Design

Every organization – regardless of size, age, complexity, or mission – will at some point face a changing landscape that will result in new and unique challenges.  Some organizations will be structured in such a way that they can easily adapt to the new realities and requirements of their situation.  Most won’t.

No organization is static.

Organizations will, from time to time, require re-design, re-alignment, or re-habilitation.

This is where the many challenges of Organization Design become apparent.  Organizations are made up of people, and where people are involved the results will be complex and messy.  Modern managers have enough mess and complexity to handle in their day-to-day existence; they aren’t on the lookout for more.  Sadly, we can’t bring simplicity to their organization without also removing all of the people.

We also can’t provide a comprehensive organizational design course in the context of a company blog.

What we can offer are some guideposts to help you, the manager, keep the goal in sight as you work through the complexities of this process.

The 7 Fundamentals

  1. Involve employees and key stakeholders in the design process:  Use the management team as the consultative group to work through acceptable options.
  2. Form follows function:  Focus on identifying the core functions.  Everything else is likely a waste of time and energy.  Efficient structures will emerge.
  3. Integration versus differentiation:  Identify logical clusters of related functions and activities – strike a balance between service delivery and functional expert roles.
  4. Trade off between hierarchical versus flat structures:  Focus on effective horizontal management practices while framing boundary spanning mechanisms.
  5. Identify clear roles and responsibilities:  The result will be increased functional leadership capacity and subject matter expert knowledge.
  6. Embrace flexibility and an ability to adapt with change:  Recognize that both formal and informal networks will always result – acknowledge this and integrate in a networked organizational structure.
  7. Provide for employee career development:  The intent is not to organize around individuals.  However, the recruitment and retention challenge must be recognized, and opportunities for career development and professional growth must be provided to all.

So, here are seven basic tenets – should there be eight, nine, or ten?  More?  I’m interested in your feedback; would you remove or modify any of these?  Would you like to add others?  Let us know in the comments.

note: this post originally appeared on the Delta Blog, 28 September 2010

Jargon Monoxide

Effective communication skills.

The Harvard Business Review says, “Effective communication is a key driver for achieving desired results on a personal or business level.”

So why is this so common:

Together, we will leverage our assets to deliver the strategic value that our stakeholders expect and deserve as we create synergistic value add via the integration of complex systems to facilitate collaboration across mission critical projects in order to best provide enhanced innovation, efficiency, productivity, retention, and engagement.

Suffocating in the Jargon Monoxide

I’ve long been a fan of Dr. Bob Sutton, author of – among many great books and articles – The No  Asshole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss.  He recently pointed out a term that was used in one of his classes by Polly LeBarre, former editor at Fast Company:  Jargon Monoxide.

It’s one of those, “boy, I wish I had thought of that” terms.


Some highly technical fields require special terms and a unique language to provide for proper communication between the practitioners – medical terminology is the most familiar example for many of us.

But the business of management and leadership rarely requires special terminology or language, though that doesn’t seem to reduce the mind-crippling ramblings of business writers, executives, and a great many management consultants.

We “communicate” in platitudes and double-speak corporatese. Words and phrases are strung together which, to the uninitiated, appear to be completely absent in meaning – if not intentionally misleading.

Carbon Monoxide

A poisonous gas that is invisible, odourless, and tasteless, and is highly toxic to humans and animals.

It is also contributes significantly to urban pollution.

Made to Stick

Jargon Monoxide, it really grabbed me the first time I heard it, and – as I think about it – I believe it resonates really well with the principles described by the Heath brothers in Made to Stick.

  • Simple
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credible
  • Emotional
  • Stories

A few of my favourite examples

  • Value add
  • White board [as a verb]
  • Synergies
  • Transitioning
  • Boiling the ocean
  • Human Capital
  • Dialogue [as a verb]

Speak Human

So why do we do it? All of us will, in spite of our best intentions, engage in some terrible business language.  But why?

I will reference and paraphrase Dr. Sutton again:  In many business environments people are recognized and rewarded for saying smart things rather than doing smart things. And, as the carousel of promotion, re-assignment, and re-organization spins faster and faster, few people are in one position long enough that they have to live with the repercussions of their decisions.

And so, we fall back on the popular phrase of the day to impress the supervisors and colleagues who will be writing up our next performance evaluation with the deep and thorough comprehension that we have developed in the face of a complex environment.

The ability of an organization to maximize achievements is not enhanced by leveraging its core competencies via the verbal and/or written modality, so, at the end of the day, the optics of the situation are not favourable in light of the key performance indicators.

Actually, people perform best when communications are clear, concise, and direct.

What are your favourite examples of Jargon Monoxide?  Let us know in the comments.

note: this post originally appeared on the Delta Blog, 23 December 2011