Eight Steps for Leading Change

John P. Kotter of Harvard Business School has written extensively on change in articles and books, including Leading Change (Harvard Business School Press, 1996) and The Heart of Change (Harvard Business School Press, 2002).

In Leading Change, Kotter lists eight reasons why organizations can fail in their transformation efforts (pp. 4-14):

  1. “Allowing too much complacency.”
  2. “Failing to create a sufficiently powerful guiding coalition.”
  3. “Underestimating the power of vision.”
  4. “Undercommunicating the vision by a factor of 10 (or 100 or even 1,000).”
  5. “Permitting obstacles to block the vision.”
  6. “Failing to create short-term wins.”
  7. “Declaring victory too soon.”
  8. “Neglecting to anchor changes firmly in the corporate culture.”

According to The Heart of Change (pp. 2-3), making big leaps forward (rather than mere continual and gradual improvement) is essential. In addition, changes must focus primarily on behavior, with strategy, systems, and culture secondary. Change is about influencing feelings more than providing analysis to impact thoughts. Corresponding to the eight categories of failure, here are the eight key steps for creating effective change (pp. 3-6):

  1. Create a sense of urgency, which “gets people off the couch, out of a bunker, and ready to move” (p 3).
  2. Put together a qualified and effective guiding team.
  3. Create a vision and set of strategies.
  4. Communicate “simple, heartfelt messages sent through many unclogged channels” (p. 4).
  5. Provide empowerment, not by “handing out” power, but by removing obstacles.
  6. Create short-term wins to produce momentum. Otherwise, “the cynics and skeptics can sink any effort” (p. 5).
  7. Don’t try to do too much at once, but don’t lose momentum by letting up and quitting too soon.
  8. Behave consistently to create a culture that helps change stick.

As opposed to the pattern of “Analysis-Think-Change,” much more frequently the progression is “See-Feel-Change” (The Heart of Change, p. 11).

In conclusion, Jack Welch once reportedly said, “You’ve got to talk about change every second of the day” (p. 14). The world is constantly changing, and one can either choose to effectively lead the process of change or let change sneak up by surprise.