Leading Change

John P. Kotter, professor of leadership at Harvard Business School expands in this book on a 1995 article he wrote for the Harvard Business Review. The amount of change in organizations has grown tremendously over the past two decades, and the rate of change will only accelerate in the next few decades. No wonder change, and leadership through change, are foremost concerns of CEO’s today.

Why Change Fails

Although the need for change is widely recognized and acknowledged, the reality of creating that change, and more importantly, making the change “stick” are extremely difficult. Kotter details eight common errors in organizational change efforts:

1. Allowing too much complacency
2. Failing to create a sufficiently powerful guiding coalition
3. Underestimating the power of vision
4. Undercommunicating 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

Granted, managing change is important. Competent management is required to keep change efforts on track. But for most organizations, the much bigger challenge is leading change. Only leadership can blast through the many sources of corporate inertia. Only leadership can motivate the actions needed to alter behavior in any significant way. Only leadership can get change to stick, by anchoring it in the very culture of the organization.

But leadership, Kotter stresses cannot be confined to one larger-than-life individual who charms thousands into being obedient followers. Modern organizations are far too complex to be transformed by a single giant. The leadership effort must have support from many people who assist the leadership agenda within their sphere of activity.

The Eight Stage Change Process

Kotter has developed, through his experience in observing change efforts in many organizations, 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:

· establishing a sense of urgency
· creating the guiding coalition
· developing a vision and strategy
· communicating the change vision

The next stages then introduce many new practices:

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

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

· institutionalizing 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 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 advise 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, is published by the Harvard Business School Press, 1996.

Reviewed by J.D.

   


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