What is the model?

More than 20 years ago, John Kotter, a professor at Harvard Business School, wrote "Leading Change" which became an international best seller, and the go to text for HR and Organisational Development Managers who were trying to implement large scale change programmes. It remains an important and influential resource.

Kotter says that organisations frequently make the same mistakes when trying to bring about change – they allow too much complacency, they fail to communicate and so on. According to him, these failures can be avoided by following eight specific steps, in the right order. Here they are:

1. Establish a sense of urgency
All too often organisations get into the ‘what' and the ‘how' of change, without really addressing the most important question of all – why? The change will fail unless people know the answers to the questions ‘why change?' and ‘why change now?'

2. Create the guiding coalition
Before deciding exactly what the change will be, you need to put together a group of people who are in broad agreement about the kind of change needed. Jim Collins says something similar in Good to Great, where he encourages leaders to get the right people on the bus, before articulating the details of the change.

3. Develop a vision and strategy
Kotter is very clear what a vision is: it's not a vague aspiration, but a ‘picture of the future with some implicit or explicit commentary on why people should strive to create that future'. In other words, it's a big, exciting goal.

4. Communicate the change vision
Use metaphors and examples, and use different communication channels to continue repeating the message.

5. Empower employees for broad based action
Make sure people have the skills, the tools and the systems to bring about the change

6. Generate short term wins
It's common for change initiatives to lose momentum quite early on. A lot of hard work is usually involved before the benefits of the change become apparent. Create short term wins to keep people motivated.

7. Consolidate gains and produce more change
Don't give up too soon.

8. Anchor new approaches into the culture
It's common to think that unless you change the organisational culture, nothing really changes. Hence the many change initiatives that are specifically focused on changing organisational culture. Kotter thinks that attempting to change culture first is a mistake – better to make the practical changes to structures, processes and behaviour and let these changes lead to a culture change.

The Pros and Cons of Kotter's 8 Step Model

The greatest strength of Kotter's model is its first two steps – creating a sense of urgency and creating the guiding coalition. Far too many leaders lurch into a programme of organisational upheaval without having properly convinced people first that there is a genuine need for change. Often leaders think they can drive change by the force of their own personality, rather than genuinely engaging a broader group of people who also understand the need for change. Individuals seldom have all the skills and insights needed to bring about successful organisational change. That's why a change leadership group – a guiding coalition as Kotter puts it – is so useful.

Kotter's approach provides a very robust checklist of most of the things you need to think about during the change process. One very skilled change leader I once worked with forgot to make sure that her organisation's IT systems were aligned with the new change, and this came close to destroying the whole project. Kotter's fifth step would have reminded her to make sure the right systems were in place.

The need to create short terms wins just as people are beginning to lose faith in the whole change process is also a very useful insight for change leaders.

On the downside, there are three principal drawbacks to Kotter's model.

First, it is essentially a top down model. Kotter has a lot of experience of working with organisations on big change projects, and most of that experience is with very large corporations. If you are in a setting where people expect a more participative or bottom up approach to change, something like appreciative enquiry is likely to be more useful.

Secondly, it is a bit mechanistic. Organisations are not just machines, they are also communities of people. As a checklist, the model is great – as a step by step prescription for change, it is less useful than Peter Senge's work on systems theory.

Finally, although Kotter's model is very strong on initiating change, I can't help feeling it's bit weak at sustaining it. Step seven in particular – ‘consolidate gains and produce more change' – doesn't give much in the way of specific guidance for sustaining change.

Share this page