Leading Change…


John P. Kotter, a professor of leadership at Harvard Business School, first covered his Eight Stage Change Process in a 1995 article which was based on his study of over 100 international companies. He stated that the amount of change in organisations has grown tremendously over the past two decades, and the rate of change will only accelerate in the next few.

Why Change Fails

Although the need for change is widely recognised and acknowledged, the reality of creating change and making the change “stick” is extremely difficult. Kotter identified eight common errors in organisational change efforts as follows:

1. Allowing too much complacency
2. Failing to create a sufficiently powerful guiding coalition
3. Underestimating the power of vision
4. Under-communicating the vision
5. Permitting obstacles to block the vision
6. Failing to create short term wins
7. Declaring victory too soon
8. Neglecting to anchor changes firmly in the corporate culture.

Leading Not Managing

Managing change is important, as competent management is required to keep change efforts on track. But, for most organisations, the bigger challenge is leading change. Leadership can motivate and mobilise, it can remove many sources of inertia and enable behavioural, cultural and organisational change. However, leadership, Kotter stresses, should not reside in a few larger-than-life individuals, who have the skills and attributes to charm employees into being obedient followers. Most modern organisations are far too complex to be transformed by a single personality. The leadership effort requires support from all who are involved.

The Eight-Stage Change Process

Kotter has developed, through his experience in observing change efforts in many organisations, an eight-stage model for implementing change. Each stage is associated with one of the eight fundamental errors that undermine transformation efforts (listed above). The first four steps help to defrost a hardened status quo. They are:

1. establishing a sense of urgency
2. creating the guiding coalition
3. developing a vision and strategy
4. communicating the change vision

The next stages then introduce many new practices:

5. empowering a broad base of people to take action
6. generating short term wins
7. consolidating gains and producing even more change

The final stage is required to ground the changes in the corporate culture, and make them stick:

8. institutionalising new approaches in the culture

Following The Process

Kotter asserts that all of the stages must be worked through in order, and completely, to successfully change. Skipping even a single step, or getting too far ahead without a solid base almost always creates problems. People under pressure to show results will often skip the warm-up or defrosting activities (the first four steps). In this case you rarely establish a solid enough base on which to proceed. Failing to reinforce the earlier stages as you move on results in the sense of urgency dissipating or the guiding coalition breaking up. Without the follow though which takes place in the final step, you never get to the finish line and make changes stick. In the book, Kotter goes through each of the eight stages in detail, offering examples and useful, practical advice on “how-to”, showing where and how people often go wrong. As change is a constant in today’s world, business leaders would do well to read and understand this action plan for leading change.

Leading Change, by John P. Kotter, published by the Harvard Business School Press, 1996

Based on research carried out by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner during an intensive study, The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® determined the leadership competencies that are essential to getting things done in organisations. They captured thousands of “Personal Best” stories—the experiences people recalled when asked to think of a peak leadership experience. Despite differences in people’s individual stories, their Personal-Best Leadership Experiences revealed similar patterns of behaviour. The study found that when leaders are at their personal best, They:

path Model the Way – Leaders establish and demonstrate the ground rules concerning the way people (constituents, peers, colleagues, and customers alike) should be treated and the way goals should be pursued. They create standards of excellence and then set an example for others to follow. Because complex change can overwhelm people and stifle action, they set short-term goals so that people can achieve small wins as they work toward larger objectives. They remove the bureaucratic barriers that can impede action; they put up signposts when people are unsure of where to go or how to get there; and they create opportunities.

vision Inspire a Shared vision – Leaders have the self-belief that they can make a difference. They can see into the future, creating an ideal and unique image of what can be. Through their interpersonal skills, leaders enlist others in their vision. They breathe life into that vision and get people to see exciting possibilities for the future.

challenge Challenge the Process – Leaders search for opportunities to challenge the status quo. They look for innovative ways to improve the organisation. They experiment and take risks. Because they know that risk taking involves mistakes, they accept the inevitable disappointments as learning opportunities.

action Enable others to Act – Leaders encourage collaborative working and build spirited teams. They actively involve others. They strive to create an atmosphere of trust and respect. They strengthen others, making each person feel capable and powerful.

heart-on-fire Encourage the Heart – Accomplishing extraordinary things in an organisation is hard work. To keep hope and determination alive, leaders recognise contributions that individuals make. In every winning team, the members need to share in the rewards of their efforts; leaders celebrate accomplishments. They make people feel valued.