John Kotter's guiding principles for leading change

The 8 steps of John Kotter's change model


John Kotter's highly regarded books 'Leading Change' (1995) and the follow-up 'The Heart Of Change' (2002) describe a popular and helpful model for understanding and managing change.

Each stage acknowledges a key principle identified by Kotter relating to people's response and approach to change, and in which people see, feel and then change.

john kotter,change management models,change management,change managers,change management trainingFor change to happen, it helps if a sufficient number of people within an organisation want it. John Kotter suggests that at least 75% of people wanting it creates a critical mass.

So developing a sense of urgency around the need for change may help you spark the initial motivation to get things moving...

John Kotter introduced his eight-step change process in his 1995 book, "Leading Change."

(1) Create Urgency

john kotter,change management models,change management,change managers,change management training As mentioned above, John Kotter suggests that for change to be successful, 75% of a company's management needs to support the change.

So a key early task is to develop a sense of urgency around the need for change. This involves extensive internal dialogue regarding the market and competitor environments.

This can involve a full SWOT analysis, scenario planning and full deployment of all the strategic planning tools.

Results of analysis and early conclusions should be thoroughly tested with informed third party opinion and a wide cross section of all stakeholders.

(2) Form a guiding coalition

Managing change is not enough – change has to be led.

Building the momentum for change requires a strong leadership and visible support from key people within your organisation. The coalition will involve a wide representation of the formal and informal power-base within the organisation.

By working as a team, the coalition helps to create more momentum and build the sense of urgency in relation to the need for change.

John Kotter recognises the importance of the emotional dimension and the energy that is generated by a “mastermind” group all working together.




(3) Develop a vision and strategy

A drive for change without a clear focus will rapidly fizzle out unless you develop a clear vision of the future that is accompanied with a clear description about how things will be different in the future.

The vision needs to defined in such a way that it is capable of expression in a short “vision speech” that conveys the heart of the change in less than 5 minutes.

This then needs to be encapsulated in a powerful one or two sentence summary.

All members of the coalition need to be fluent in both of these vision statements.

You need to work with the coalition to develop the strategies that will deliver the vision.

(4) Communicating the vision

Communication is everything, and Kotter maintains that as change leader you need to use every means at your disposal to constantly communicate the new vision and key strategies that support that vision.

This goes beyond the “special announcement” meetings and involves frequent and informal face-to-face contact with your people - by you and by all individual members of the coalition.

Email is not the appropriate communication vehicle – except in support of prior face-to-face contact.

But it goes further than talking – you and the coalition have to “walk the talk” visibly and at all times be available and accessible to your people.

Be open and honest and address the emotional dimension of your people’s fears and concerns.




(5) Enabling action and removal of obstacles

This is the stage where your change initiative moves beyond the planning and the talking, and into practical action your change initiative moves beyond the planning and the talking, and into practical action as you put supportive structures in place and empower and encourage your people to take risks in pursuit of the vision.

This is where you, as change leader, identify and remove obstacles and obstructions to change. These may arise in processes or structures that are getting in the way. This may also involve addressing resistant individuals and/or groups and helping them to reorient themselves to the requirements of the new realities

Huddle Collaboration




(6) Generating short-term wins

Success breeds success. Kotter advises that an early taste of victory in the change process gives people a clear sight of what the realised vision will be like.

john kotter,change management,change managers,change management trainingThis is important as a counter to critics and negative influencers who may otherwise impede the progress of your initiative.

It is also important to recognise and reward all those people who make these early gains possible.

As change leader you need to be looking for - and creating – opportunities for these early wins.

(7) Hold the gains and build on change

Kotter argues that many change initiatives fail because victory is declared too early. An early win is not enough.

This is the time to increase the activity, and change all systems and structures and processes that don’t fit with the change initiative, and bring “new blood” into the coalition.

This now all about continuous improvement and each success [and failure] is an opportunity for analysing what worked [or didn’t] and what can be improved.

(8) Anchor changes in the culture

John Kotter says that for any change to be sustained, it needs to become embedded in the new “way we do things around here” – that is the culture.

A major part of this is for you, as change leader, to articulate the connections between new behaviours and organisational success. This is where you - and your coalition team - talk about progress every chance you get. Tell success stories about the change process, and repeat other success stories that you hear.

As change leader, this is all about your continuous efforts to ensure that the change is seen in every aspect of your organisation.




John Kotter - Making Change Real - The Heart of Change

In "Making Change Real - The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations" John Kotter, with the help of co-author Dan Cohen, a partner at Deloitte Consulting, illustrates how his famous eight-step approach to change management has worked in over 100 organizations.

John Kotter says that the single biggest challenge facing leadership in a change process is just getting people to change their behaviour: "All through our lives we have been taught to over-rely on what you might call the memo approach - the 19 logical reasons to change - and we've under-relied on what Dan Cohen and I found is much more effective, which is presenting something that is emotionally compelling. People change their behaviour when they are motivated to do so, and that happens when you speak to their feelings."





Huddle Collaboration3 key points emerge from their review of companies who have followed John Kotter's eight-step approach to change management and succeeded with their change initiatives.

(1) Great change leaders are great at telling visual stories with high emotional impact

Martin Luther King did not stand up in front of the Lincoln Memorial and say "I have a great strategy" and illustrate it with 10 good reasons why it was a good strategy. He said those immortal words: "I have a dream," and then he proceeded to show the people what his dream was - he illustrated his picture of the future and did so in a way that had high emotional impact.

(2) The leader's example is a powerful method of communicating feeling and facilitating change

To paraphrase one of the sayings of Jesus: "Why do you look at the speck of dust that is in the other guy's eye, but not notice the log that is in your own eye?"

According to John Kotter this is a big issue. He feels that as people climb further up the corporate ladder they become increasingly out of touch with the impact of their own performance until they cannot see that they have become a part of the problem.

As he says:

"I suspect a lot of people just haven't been taught, always start with yourself. It is a great rule of thumb for so many things. Start with yourself first!"

(3) Organizations need heroes at every level

As one of David Bowie's greatest singles puts it: "...I will be king and you, you will be queen...we can be heroes, just for one day". John Kotter believes that buried very deep within everyone is the desire to be a hero [even if for only one day]: "...today's organizations need heroes at every level. To truly succeed in a turbulent world, more than half the workforce needs to step up to the plate in some arena and provide change leadership."

In echo of Bowie's lyric he suggests that this might only mean being a hero for one day, but he stresses that the cumulative effect of many such small actions is a significant factor in enabling organisations to change.

When asked, in a recent interview, about the importance of leadership in successfully unleashing "the heart of change", John Kotter said:

"Crucial. Only leadership can blast through corporate inertia and motivate people to change in a meaningful way".




John Kotter - How to Manage Change - A Sense of [the Right Kind Of] Urgency


In his seminal 1995 book "Leading Change" John Kotter introduced his eight-step change process, the first of which is to create urgency. John Kotter suggests, that for change to be successful, at least 75% of a company's management needs to "buy into" the change.

So for change to happen there needs to be a shared a sense of urgency around the need for change. And this will result from honest and open dialogue with your people about what's happening in your market and with your competition. If many people start talking about the change you propose, the urgency can build and feed on itself.

"A Sense of Urgency" (Harvard Business Press, 2008) is the title of John Kotter's latest book on change management and change leadership in organisations. Here he develops the theme from the first step of "Leading Change" and highlights the 2 types of urgency:




(1) Inward looking - panic driven urgency

This is the urgency born of the "knee jerk" reaction and is fear based. A fear based on losing something. It is unproductive and drains people of energy. It is characterized by frantic and frenetic activity - sometimes known as the "headless chicken" syndrome. People are fearful of losing their jobs and keep on taking on more and more often working 12-14 hour days filled with endless meetings.

John Kotter believes that one reason for the catastrophic 70% failure rate of all change initiatives is the leaders do not create a positive sense of urgency around what they are doing. They dive straight into a low level project based attempt at implementing a solution.

(2) Outward looking - risk / opportunity focused urgency

This "good" urgency is all about a constant focus on the external risks and opportunities. As Kotter says:

"It involves relentless focus on doing only those things that move the business forward in the marketplace and on doing them right now, if not sooner."

Good leaders will, with the greatest sense of urgency, pay attention to the internal metrics of their business but they are much more focused and much more interested in what's happening on the outside:

"They want to have as many metrics about their competitors as they do about themselves."

John Kotter believes that all meetings should reference what is happening in the external world - or not take place!

He cites the example of a company installing a new software system and suggests that the leader should be saying:

"...What other companies do we know that have done this? What problems did they solve, and how did they solve them? Wouldn't that be useful information? Let's get it."

Ultimately, Kotter believes that (a) outward focused "good" urgency energizes people and enables to generate positive emotions and (b) it is the responsibility of the leader to model this by example.

In my experience, the quality of leadership that you provide is one of the top 5 factors that will determine whether you really do succeed and realise the benefits with your change initiative - or you join the long list of 70% failures.




5 observations from John Kotter in a recent interview


john kotter,change management,change managers,change management training According to John Kotter, in a recent interview in "Management Consulting News", many organisations are now much better at managing and guiding change.

But unfortunately the current rate of change that we are all experiencing is faster than the rate at which organisations are improving, and he feels that gap is increasing.

He makes 5 observations:

(1) The marginal rate of change is increasing [and will continue to do so]

He says: "Many organisations just can't keep up with the speed of change."

We used to believe that change occurs in cycles and waves that ebb and flow. This may be accurate over long time spans of hundreds of years, but in the present the rate of change is continually increasing.

(2) Leaders need to get better at leading and managing change

As I see it, Kotter's core message is that leaders need to get better at [to put it in my own words]: "leading your people through change, putting it all together and managing the whole messy business".

To deal with this Kotter says that organisational leaders "need to get better at all of the eight steps that I identified for successful change".

He specifically feels that leaders need to pay more attention to the early stages of the change process, that is: creating a feeling of urgency, clarifying the vision, good communication and empowering people to take action. And the one key place to focus is on creating and sustaining the sense of urgency about the need for change, and that starts at the top:

(3) The sense of urgency re change needs to permeate the whole organisation

"The people at the top may think there's plenty sense of urgency, yet if you dig down into the organisation, you discover it's not nearly what it needs to be to sustain change through the whole process."

The absence of a universally shared sense of urgency in an organisation embarking on change is: "like trying to build a pyramid on a foundation of empty shoeboxes"!

(4) Leaders' deeds are more important than their words

Often during the change process, difficult things have to be addressed, such as layoffs, restructurings and redeployments. In these situations, Kotter believes that the leaders deeds are as, or probably more, important than their words.

"When people see it being done right, their fear level quite rationally goes down and their conviction grows that the plan can work...People do resist change because they're afraid. But they also resist change if they perceive that it's being done stupidly. If you can get them to understand how they can play a constructive part, sometimes it's amazing what happens."

(5) Leaders need to understand what does and doesn't work before embarking on change

The key piece of advice that Kotter offers is for organisational leaders to take the time to get themselves informed about what does and doesn't work - before launching into action with a change initiative. As he says:

"If you get that knowledge upfront, it can save you great grief and money later on."










Practitioner's Masterclass


John Kotter's contribution to the leadership and management of change is considerable and significant. In my view, these are the greatest strengths of Kotter’s 8 Step change Model:

  • It sets out a clear leadership roadmap
  • It is energy based and addresses the emotional imperative of momentum
  • It outlines key steps to build and sustain that momentum

The weaknesses of the model:

  • john kotter,change management,change managers,change management trainingIt is action based and tactical and, in my view, does not go far enough in spelling out the specifics of how to achieve clarity of vision and an executable strategy to get from that vision to the realisation of the benefits of the change initiative
  • The focus of the model is on organisational change and does not address the personal transitions that accompanies that change - or at least not to the same degree as William Bridges'transition model.




Key factors to address BEFORE embarking on a change intiative


Change Management Risk Assessment

Change Management Implementation

Change Equation - INPACT Assessment

Leadership Qualities - Creating a Change Culture

Managing Personal Change







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