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Leading Change by John Kotter

Inde Statue GandhiI just finished the classic book on "change management," Leading Change by John Kotter. Next on my list is Kotter's companion set of examples and stories of successful changes, The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their OrganizationsLeading Change has been sitting on my should-read list for quite a while, particularly since my association with the MS-LOC program at Northwestern.  It's also come up a number of times on a Theory of Constraints mailing list as a must read to get a better understanding of why change implementations get stuck and what to do about it.

Leading Change has its familiar eight stages of change.  But the clear message is that big changes can only happen through leadership, taken on by people throughout the organization, not just the CEO and a few titular leaders.  For a change effort to work, the organization has to grant people leadership capabilities and let them run.  Organizations that want to change cannot work from command-and-control and "the old ways" of doing things.  Kotter makes reference many times to the 20th Century way of doing business that generally assumes everything will stay the same - business that just needs good management.  It is clear that everything will not stay the same, and that change demands leadership appear in many places.  In the closing chapters he talks about how to create those leaders and makes a strong tie to the idea of lifelong learning - allowing people to learn from their mistakes, their work, their curiosity and grow into leadership roles.  The book is both inspirational and somewhat fear inducing.  But then, no one ever said this should be easy.

Kotter's 8 stage process for change is as follows with some of my thoughts on each point.  I can't possibly cover the whole thing here.  If you are curious, go read the book.

  1. Establish a sense of urgency.  If people in the organization don't believe the change is worth it, then they will be much less likely to get behind it.  And they will be more likely to drop the focus when the next shiny idea comes along.  And those shiny ideas come along frequently.
  2. Create the guiding coalition.  Major changes cannot be accomplished by fiat, nor can small groups successfully complete the change.  But a guiding coalition or steering committee has to be built and committed to helping drive the effort across the organization.  It wouldn't hurt if one or two skeptics are in this core group.
  3. Develop a vision and strategy.  What is the organization going to look like when this change is done?  What does it look like while the change happens?  I like that Kotter places a lot of importance on making the vision be something that makes sense to everyone, not just the people who wrote it.
  4. Communicate the change vision.  One friend commented that Leading Change is all about communication.  It's a huge component all the way up and down these eight stages.  One thing I see in companies is that while top management believe they've told their people about X, most people in the organization haven't heard about it or recall only small pieces of the idea.  Kotter has seen this as well and reiterates the idea that important ideas have to be communicated many times in many ways.  More importantly, if it's such a big effort, people's daily communication needs to reflect the new way of working.  Internal leaders must "be the change they wish to see," quoting Gandhi.
  5. Empower employees for broad-based action.  More leadership.  People throughout the organization must be able to take actions that they see is in line with the vision and the authority that they have to do something about it.  No more claims of "it's not my job." 
  6. Generate short-term wins.  I was a little surprised to see this so far down the list, but then Kotter's discussion makes sense.  Many of the eight stages happen in parallel, and the short-term wins have to be clearly linked to the efforts made to get to the vision.
  7. Consolidate gains and produce more change.  The core element of this chapter was, "Don't rest on your laurels" after a few good things happen.  Sure, you can celebrate, but you also need to redouble efforts, lest the progress you've made gets lost in the excitement of the Next Thing on the agenda.  Kotter also addressed an important aspect of procedures and policies that are tied to the "old way" of doing business.  These policies can be buried deep in the fabric of the organization and must be found and removed/changed to bring the organization in line with the new way of doing business.  And it's not a bad idea to write down the new policies, so you know why they are there.
  8. Anchor new approaches in the culture.  While this is last on the list, I have to believe this comes into play with the development of the vision.  Once you know where you want to be, you also know how you want people to start behaving and what policies are in the way of the change.  As with Stage 7, the sooner the cultural and procedural barriers can be identified and removed the better.

One question I had while reading Leading Change was around the size and type of change under discussion.  Most of the examples were of major changes to the underlying structure or philosophy of a business.  But then as I read into the examples and stages of change, I can see the same problems appearing in seemingly smaller and smaller implementations - nearly anything that requires change to dive into the culture of a business could be under consideration of this model.  And this is where a link to Theory of Constraints appears.

In TOC, there is a set of "layers of resistance" or "layers of buy-in" depending on your point of view.  The layers of buy-in go something like this (layers of resistance are the opposites):

  1. We agree on the problem.
  2. We agree on the direction of the solution.
  3. We agree that the solution solves the problem.
  4. We agree that we can overcome any potential negative ramifications.
  5. We agree that the obstacles to implementation can be overcome.
  6. We commit to move forward.

This progression can be a helpful gauge to see where people are in a change effort and what actions need to be taken to help move the effort along.  Maybe it's because I am an engineer, but I like their logical progression on building an overall consensus to dealing with change.  However, all that is built into the layers of buy-in are the logical transitions.  There is very little in here directly about creating leaders and baking the change into the culture.  And depending on how you look at this model, it is all within the first few stages of Kotter's model (coalition and strategy, mainly).  That said, Kotter's model is probably not the be-all and end-all of change discussions either.

[Photo: "Inde Statue Gandhi" by laurent KB]

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