The Danger of Missing the Subtlety of Kotter’s Leading Change

Saturday, December 3rd, 2011

Recently, I have been reading lots of blogs on change. Some are great and get me thinking. I love those. Many others just list John Kotter’s eight steps. These blog authors add no value. How have they applied these steps? Did they work? Where do they differ from Kotter’s thinking – or do they treat his work as sacred script? A few minutes ago, I responded to one of those blog posts. Here is a slightly revised version of what I said. And I would love to hear your comments.

I like Kotter’s eight steps. He deserves a lot of credit for coming up with a practical and logical set of steps. Many of my own clients use his model when they think about change. In reading Kotter’s classic book, Leading Change, there is one thing implied in his model, but not addressed as deeply as I would like. And that’s resistance. I advise my clients who use Kotter’s model, to ask a single question at every step along the way: To what extent are various stakeholders supporting this change and to what extent are they resisting? Too often leaders (and their consultants) go through the stages as if they were steps in a recipe. (Just add 22 PowerPoint slides, let the points steep, and then bake until done.) It doesn’t work that way. (And I am pretty certain Kotter would agree with me.) Each stage demands a feedback loop. For example, his first step is creating a sense of urgency. I agree completely with that. But it is too easy for us to look at what we do to create this urgency and not ask ourselves, “Were we successful? What’s the data that tells us people feel fire in their bellies.” It’s like using driving instructions from your GPS without making sure that you really were supposed to turn left into that corn field.

Another issue that I believe is implied in his writing, but deserves more attention is engaging lots of people in the process. A guiding coalition can be a critically important step, but that often isn’t enough. Get lots of people involved. When high involvement is handled well, it can be a significant force in making all the stages work more effectively because it increases the number of people who care about making the change a success. You have higher engagement, less resistance, and more leaders scattered throughout the organization.

Of course, everything I just said applies to any model of change you use, it just happens that Kotter’s is the most widely quoted and discussed.

For a refresher on Kotter’s steps from the man himself: The 8-Step Process for Leading Change

– Rick

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