On leading change

They say that nothing is fixed, except change. Change is so complicated as much as it is important, yet we know and do so little to make it happen. One model however that has since 1996 inspired many is John Kotter’s model of leading change. Kotter suggests that there are 8 steps to achieve change. He derived these steps from the major pitfalls that cause change effort to fail. These are summarised as follows in his article about the issue:

Actions Needed


Establish a sense of urgency

  • Examine market and competitive realities for potential crises and untapped opportunities.
  • Convince at least 75% of your man- agers that the status quo is more dangerous than the unknown.
  • Underestimating the difficulty of driving people from their comfort zones.
  • Becoming paralyzed by risks

Form a powerful guiding coalition

  • Assemble a group with shared commitment and enough power to lead the change effort.
  • Encourage them to work as a team outside the normal hierarchy.
  • No prior experience in teamwork at the top
  • Relegating team leadership to an HR, quality, or strategic planning executive rather than a senior line manager

Create a vision

  • Create a vision to direct the change effort.
  • Develop strategies for realizing that vision.
  • Presenting a vision that’s too complicated or vague to be communicated in five minutes

Communicate the vision

  • Use every vehicle possible to commu- nicate the new vision and strategies for achieving it.
  • Teach new behaviors by the example of the guiding coalition.
  • Under-communicating the vision
  • Behaving in ways antithetical to the vision

Empower others to act on the vision

  • Remove or alter systems or structures undermining the vision.
  • Encourage risk taking and nontradition- al ideas, activities, and actions.
  • Failing to remove powerful individuals who resist the change effort

Plan for and create short- term wins

  • Define and engineer visible perform- ance improvements.
  • Recognise and reward employees con- tributing to those improvements.
  • Leaving short-term successes up to chance
  • Failing to score successes early enough (12-24 months into the change effort)

Consolidate improve- ments and produce more change

  • Use increased credibility from early wins to change systems, structures, and policies undermining the vision.
  • Hire, promote, and develop employees who can implement the vision.
  • Reinvigorate the change process with new projects and change agents.
  • Declaring victory too soon—with the first performance improvement.
  • Allowing resistors to convince “troops” that the war has been won

Institutionalize new approaches

  • Articulate connections between new behaviors and corporate success.
  • Create leadership development and succession plans consistent with the new approach.
  • Not creating new social norms and shared values consistent with changes
  • Promoting people into leadership posi- tions who don’t personify the new approach

When Kotter developed his model, he had change on an organisational level in mind. However, if we look closer at the items, I think it is possible to assume the same or at least similar measures are required to achieve change on a personal and societal level.

If we don’t feel a sense of urgency to change something, if we don’t realise its importance, and the fact that not much time is left to change, then it is unlikely that we are going to act. This happens on a personal level with procrastinating things we regard optional until we realise that they are not. An important example on a societal level is climate change. Since many years people didn’t (and still don’t) feel the urgency to change our production and consumption habits, until drastic damage has been caused to our ecosystem.

If we don’t have strong allies that agree upon the need to change, change is not going to happen. On a personal level, we often need to include others in our change efforts. If the people surrounding us are not supportive and encouraging, then we are not likely to change. Going back to the climate change example, societies are not going to able to change until there is a sufficient number of powers and authorities that truly agree upon the need to change. Look how many treaties to prevent global warming exist, but how the efforts are failing because strong actors like the USA and China are still are not serious enough about the changes required.

A lack of vision and a real understanding what needs to be changed is also essential in any type of change. We want to change on a personal level, but often don’t have the right vision, goals, and some clear steps to achieve that change. This is why we fail. So is the case with change on a societal level. Leaders who have a clear vision for a society are the ones who are successful in changing it. The best example is Marthin Luther King’s I have a dream vision that, because it was so clear and catchy, was able to change not only America but also the whole world.

Communicating the vision is also important to achieve change. The world is noisy and if we don’t repeat the vision for change often enough, we are unlikely to achieve anything. This is why it is advised to write your vision down and keep it somewhere you can easily take a look at it, so that you don’t forget. And this is why if we want to change society, we need among many other things to have a strong communication campaign that keeps pushing the same message over and over again until people start gradually to change. A great example is the international communication campaign against smoking that has achieve some remarkable results, because its main focus was on the future that will face smokers. A dark vision that was continuously repeated until more people started to refrain from smoking.

We also need empowerment and the removal of impediments in order make change a reality. In Change Anything, Al Switzler and others propose a powerful model to achieve personal change, by emphasising the fact that not only personal motivation and abilities , but also societal and structural motivation and abilities are required to change. By that they mean that an individual who wants to change has to control not only him or herself, but also the surrounding environment and the immediate social circle. Attempting to stop smoking doesn’t make sense when you hang out with smokers who keep offering you cigarets. And the fast food industry will keep making societies fatter and unhealthier as long as advertisers and lobbyist are out of control.

In order to achieve change and demonstrate that it is possible, short term wins are a must. Short term wins prove that change is possible, and that the efforts to achieve it are effective. This is why it is advised to track your achievements and have some visual reminders that show clearly your progress. And this is why it is so difficult to convince the public with economic reforms because they often don’t yield quick and visible results.

Furthermore, a momentum is needed to make the change efforts go on. Instead of announcing victory to early, what is needed to capitalise from the early victories achieved in oder to continue the change efforts. People who try to change their habits often are too excited when they achieve some great progress in the first days, thinking that they have achieved what they wanted. But when the improving progress is suddenly followed by a low in the middle of it, they feel frustrated and disappointed, thinking that they are hopeless cases and based on that quit. So do governments who fight terrorism, eager to achieve some quick results to satisfy the public, only to be caught off guard after declaring too soon victory against a specific terror organisation. Whereas what is needed is to fight the root causes of terrorisms, like extremism and intolerance. And those are pretty difficult things to change in a society.

Last but not least, change needs to be institutionalised. Institutionalising means that specific habits (or the lack of them) have become norm and the way things are done. As an individual, a diet must transform into a healthy eating habit in order for the results to be permanent. And the efforts to eradicate nazism were effective because they lasted many decades after the collapse of Hitler’s regime. However the neo-nazi movement is a good reminder that the same efforts need to go on because extremist movements can gain foot in society remarkably fast if people don’t attention.

Kotter’s model, despite being imperfect and too general, is a powerful guide to lead change. It gives an idea what the most important factors to be considered in change are, be it on a personal, organisational, or societal level.


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