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

Geoff Schaadt

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-210x304Why? 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


 

 

Download our new eBook:Managing change ebook cover-280x230

Managing Change: A workbook for personal and organizational change

 

 

 

 

 

 


Comments

I’ve had this book on my bookshelf since it was published (and referred to it several times in my work). It’s one of those gems that is a keeper, in contrast to much of the management trash that continues to be written.

It’s odd, but sometimes leadership/management books that have key messages when first released actually mature (like a nice red wine) over time. I would argue that Leading Change is much more relevant now to organizations (public and private) when you look at the turmoil in the global economy, the environment, society, etc.

In reference to your question on whether it’s time to change the expression “change management,” I would say yes. American consultant Linda Ackerman speaks of “change leadership.” Among her books are “Beyond Change Management” and “The Change Leader’s Roadmap.” (I have several pdf documents of Ackerman’s I can send you).

Thanks for a stimulating post, Geoff!

By Jim Taggart on 2011/10/06

Thanks Jim.  I would love to have anything from Linda that you would care to forward on.

You know, it might not be a bad idea to start compiling a list of those “red wine” books—those that stand the test of time.  It would be easy to make a web page here on the Delta Partners site to archive our list of favourites!

By Geoff Schaadt on 2011/10/11

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Posted by Geoff Schaadt
Posted on October 4, 2011
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Categories: change management, culture, leadership, management, organizational development, public service renewal