Kotter’s 8-Steps: Leading Change in the 21st Century Organization

CHARLOTTE, NC. April 2010, by

Is there a good way to attack change in organizations? To influence (and maybe even ‘fix’) the complex org cultures that drive the collective behavior of their members?

That’s the focus of this post, the 5th in my series on culture change.

John Kotter gave us perhaps the best-circulated approach for change in his HBR paper that turned into the classic: Leading Change (1996). With the caveat that there are no silver bullets I believe Kotter provides a strong, intuitive and timeless approach to grappling with change.

Unfortunately, too many have given up along the way.

Organization change and, more specifically, changing an organization’s culture, share a common scope and scale. They are, in many ways, intertwined. That means Kotter can take us in the right direction. Let me recap his 8-point outline here, providing some 21st century insight and ‘solution language’ of my own to update his framing.

  1. Urgency. Per Kotter, one of the biggest enemies is complacency. Why change? Keeping things the way they are is easier. That may be. But the path to major improvements of any kind will be held hostage with this mindset. Low standards or segmented (silo’d) accountabilities can create a false sense that eveything is okay. Change requires everyone to get beyond that comfort zone, to “step up” for something new, different, and better.
  2. Coalition. Inspiring and sponsoring change is the work of leaders, so it’s critical that they engage. That means an oversight group that includes respected leaders is key. Without it, the organization will sense management’s lack of investment and will fail to participate.
  3. Vision. The organization needs to know where it is being asked to go. Having a strong, unambiguous statement that frames the future state is the only way for the organization to focus on it. A well-written vision is motivating, inspiring the organization to come together.
  4. Communication. Many change efforts fail because they don’t reach far enough into the organization. An effective communication program makes the work of the change initiative part of the organization’s daily affairs, embedding messages in as many artifacts and venues as possible. Think ‘saturation’ and you’ll be on the right track. But it needs to be simple and actionable, to retain people’s attention.
  5. Empowerment. Employees often don’t feel they can influence the vision. If they feel disconnected and removed from the issues, they will feel ineffective and powerless, and will not to want to waste their time. The key is to establish a link between how specific employee and departmental actions can realize the vision. Barriers must be removed. And management must start letting go of their unilateral decisions, trusting larger cross-functional teams to work things out. There is less control and predictability in this mode, but empowerment creates the conditions where new ideas can spark and flourish.
  6. Momentum. Major change takes time, and there will be detractors. Kotter notes that posting interim gains drives credibility when it is most needed – on the long road toward implementation. Focus here also puts energy to fine tuning the vision, applying lessons learned along the way.
  7. Integration. I love Kotter’s quote “resistance always waits to reassert itself,” so ‘consolidating gains’ is important. If change initiatives have structures that sit outside of daily operations, we must weave the new programs, policies, people and structures back in. If change remains outside the mainstream for too long, it can seem foreign to the rest of the organization.
  8. Anchoring. The organizations culture must reflect the new changes if they are to survive long-term. Organizations tend to have long memories, and if the leadership changes or the initiative is called into question, there will be many who offer the “old way” as an alternative solution to all the change. That is why bringing the culture forward to align with the change is critical.

Kotter says “human beings are emotional creatures, and we ignore that at our peril.” I agree. I put it like this:

It is not enough to make the case in facts and figures. People have to believe in the change, own it, and live it. Ensuring organization culture incorporates the change elements is the only way to ensure long-term viability.

Again, it would be a mistake to simply follow these steps (or others like them) and expect change to result directly. As we’ve discussed at each post in this series, the many dimensions, structures, and complexities in organizations create challenges at every turn. Leaders recognize this, and adapt their approach over the life of the change effort.

At the core of it, is a commitment. They can’t ever lose faith. To lose forward momentum is to accept defeat.

We started talking in January on barriers to ‘2.0’, with the idea that ‘social media’ integration and, more broadly, ‘innovation’ itself faced many cultural barriers. Leading coordinated change initiatives (vs. traditional ‘change management’) appears to be the only truly viable path forward. It is truly ‘no small task’. But that’s not to say it’s impossible. It’s simply hard work.

Call me old fashioned, but the sooner we start, the sooner we’ll be done. I say (again): let’s get going.