My Favorite Change Models: Part 2 – John Kotter’s 8 Steps to Leading Change

This is the second of three posts on my favorite change models. The first post in this series was Kurt Lewin’s 3-Step Change Model (Unfreezing the Organization). This second post describes my experiences in using and referencing John Kotter’s 8 Steps to Leading Change on various change engagements.

So Who Is John Kotter Anyway?
John Kotter is a professor at Harvard University and is regarded as an authority on leadership and change. He did both his undergraduate and master’s degrees at MIT before completing his doctorate degree in Business Administration at Harvard University. (source: Kotter International)

John Kotter has authored several books on change management:
1. Leading Change
2. Our Iceberg Is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions
3. The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations
4. A Sense of Urgency

Leading Change – Explained
John Kotter outlines eight steps that organizations need to take to successfully implement change:
1. Establish a sense of urgency
2. Create a guiding coalition
3. Develop a change vision
4. Communicate the change vision
5. Empower broad-based action
6. Generate short-term wins
7. Don’t let up
8. Make the change stick

You can view the video below for a quick summary of his model:

Video Platform Video Management Video Solutions Video Player

Here are some additional hints for applying the 8 Steps to Leading Change Model.

Establish A Sense Of Urgency
Similar to other models, building a sense of urgency is a necessary step to implementing change successfully. If you don’t find a way to make the change exciting, compelling and necessary, you may find the implementation phase a little more challenging than it should be. When I formulate my communication messages, the “urgency” undertone is created by my thorough understanding of the organizational challenge(s) that want to be resolved (or the opportunities to be won). I do this by digging deep within the organization to uncover the history of the problem, the audiences impacted by the upcoming change and the reasons why the organization needs to change – such as the cost of change vs. the cost of doing nothing. With a thorough understanding of the purpose of the change, I can communicate the change initiative to the organizational stakeholders with a sense of urgency that is catered to each of the stakeholder groups.

Get The Right Organizational Leaders To Promote The Change
I cannot stress enough the importance of getting the right organizational leaders to sponsor the change initiative. From my point of view, designating the appropriate set of leaders to steer the change initiative in the right direction is paramount to the overall success of the project. The best case scenario would be to have the CEO and the executive leadership team support and steer the change initiative. If this is not possible, I would recommend having at least the departmental leaders and managers of the impacted stakeholders to actively commit, show support and promote the change. If not, it will be easier for the impacted employees to regress or hold onto their old behaviors and old technologies simply because the employees may observe conflicting behaviors or assigned tasks from their managers that contradict the change initiative.

I’ve been on both sides of this continuum.  I was able to work with the appropriate leaders and managers to push a change initiative forward, but I’ve also been part of other change projects that weren’t properly backed by the organizational leaders. In the latter situation, I found that I received plenty of lip service where people would seem curious about the change, but not give any real effort in exhibiting the new behaviors.  In short, there was no commitment to move the change forward. When this occurs, it is a slippery slope that results in one project extension after another.

Of course, the project goals were eventually met once the appropriate leaders got involved. To avoid this drawback, ensure that the right leaders and managers are actively promoting the change at the start of the initiative and make use of their authoritative power to eliminate barriers.

Generate Short Term Wins To Gain Momentum
Politicians, Hollywood actors and teen pop-stars would all secretly agree that perception is everything – try telling otherwise to someone like Jennifer Lopez. Perception is also important on change initiatives, especially at the start when is it imperative to get the change project started on the right foot. The strategy I like to keep in mind when identifying short-term wins is to identify tasks and milestones that are easy to implement, low risk and highly visible to employees. These “quick wins” can then be used to broadcast the progress of the change initiative to others and gain momentum towards a successful campaign. In other words, “don’t try to boil the ocean”. One of my past projects involved replacing an outdated ERP system in several catering centers across Canada. Because changing the ERP system in all of the centers at once would be too risky, we chose to replace the outdated ERP system one centre at a time. By implementing change one centre at a time, we were able to communicate our successes to the other centres to gain momentum and acceptance in advance. We were also able to focus on centre-specific issues, which resulted in a superior user-experience for that centre.

As we implemented the new ERP system in each centre, we were able to have the actual employees promote the new system from inside the company. This increased the momentum of the change exponentially.

As always, remember to use more than one change model when implementing change to cover all angles – as far as I know, there is no all-encompassing change model.  If used properly and in the right context, Kotter’s model can be an excellent tool for leading employees through complex change initiatives. Metaphorically speaking, Kotter’s model is one of the first tools I use out of my toolbox.

Stay tuned for my last post in this series – William Bridges’s Managing Transitions Model. Join my Email RSS feed to have updates sent straight to your inbox.

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