In 1994 John Paul Kotter, a Harvard Business School professor, penned an article called Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail. Then, in 1995 the Harvard Business Review (HBR) published the article. As a result, the Kotter Change Model was born.
- The article has jumped to number 1 on HBR’s reprint list
- John has expanded his insights his book Leading Change
- He has extended his thoughts even further in a range of other books (see references below)
Yet, John remains convinced that leaders still make the mistakes that he described in his original article. And, he believes that ‘among the general population of leaders and managers, the basics are still very poorly understood’.
The Kotter Change Model in a Nutshell
According to John Kotter:
- Management and leadership are two different things. Management is about dealing with the complexity of the here and now. In contrast, leadership is about adapting to and creating change.
- Change is a process that takes a considerable amount of time. This process has several stages. Skipping stages to save time may lead to an illusion of change, but it is not sustained. In a similar vein, mistakes in any of the phases can doom your change initiative to failure.
- There are 8 critical mistakes leaders tend to make, one for each phase of change. The Kotter Change Model involves avoiding these mistakes and replacing them with better decisions.
Mistake 1: Allowing People to Remain Complacent with the Way Things Are
The first mistake outlined in the Kotter Model of change involves allowing people to remain complacent with the ways things are already.
The problem is that if they don’t genuinely see and feel there is a need to change, they are unlikely to invest the effort needed to achieve and sustain significant change.
You need to help people see that things can’t stay as they are, and according to Kotter, you do this by creating a sense of urgency that change is needed.
Generating a sense of urgency includes but goes beyond making a rational business case for change. You need to win people’s hearts and minds. They need to both see and feel the need for change.
Kotter recommends 4 specific tactics to create a sense of urgency:
- Bringing the outside, inside. For example, you can use outside consultants to challenge the status quo.
- Behaving with urgency every day. For example, you should be visibly energetic and decisive in your actions.
- Harnessing crises. For example, you can use and even create a crisis to springboard people into seeing the need for change.
- Dealing with NoNos. For example, moving them on or distracting them with special projects.
Mistake 2: Trying to Lead Change Without Other Committed & Powerful People
According to the Kotter Change Model, the second mistake leaders make is trying to lead change alone.
Significant and sustained change is incredibly difficult to achieve. As a result, even those armed with a magnetic charisma cannot do it alone.
Nor can you achieve it through weak committees or task forces. Yes, you need to enlist the help of others, but your choice of whom to involve matters too. You need strong, powerful people to help you achieve lasting success. Kotter refers to this as forming a powerful coalition to guide the change.
Your coalition should include some senior leaders and managers with line authority, but it does not have to include them all. Why? Basically, you don’t include those who don’t buy-in – at least initially.
3-5 people can be enough to initiate a change, but in large organizations, this will need to grow to 20-50 people.
Your guiding coalition should include people with power outside of managerial authority. For example, you can enlist a prominent board member, a star performer and a union representative. Yet, it is not their titles that matter, but rather the sway they hold over others.
Mistake 3: Nurturing Misaligned Projects & Initiatives
Successful change involves empowering people. However, this can often lead to a range of uncoordinated projects. Such misalignment can waste precious resources. Worst of all, it can pull the organization in different directions.
The solution, according to the Kotter Change Model, is to create a clear and compelling vision. Such vision provides both motivation and direction. This direction allows people to work on different things. Yet they do so in a way that complements the efforts of others.
A vision provides a picture of the future along with a broad idea of how to get there. It is often reinforced, with a brief reminder of why you need to move there in the first place.
If you are the leader of the change, the initial development of this vision falls squarely in your lap. However, you need to involve your guiding coalition in shaping and adding clarity to your initial ideas. In large organizations, this can take up to 12 months.
You can read more about John’s views on what makes a good vision here.
In John’s book, Leading Change, he adds the need for strategies in this step. Vision tells people where they are headed, while strategies offer a broad sense of how to get there. By including broad strategies, you also help people to see that your vision is feasible.
Mistake 4: Allowing Staff to Believe That Change Isn’t Possible or Desirable
People won’t change unless they believe that change is both desirable and possible. A compelling vision is essential for this to happen. Yet, a well-crafted vision is not enough on its own.
According to the Kotter Change Model, people won’t believe the vision is possible or desirable unless you overcommunicate the vision. So, the answer to mistake 4, is to communicate, communicate and communicate.
A scattering of speeches and presentations is not enough. You need to embed communicating the vision into your day-to-day activities.
When talking about problems, outline how proposed solutions fit or don’t fit with the vision. When reprimanding a staff member, talk about how their behaviour is not consistent with the vision. And when doing a Q&A session, tie your answers back to the vision.
You also need to use all modes of communication available to you. Use meetings, newsletters, training sessions, email, video and more. And you need to speak to people’s hearts, not just their minds.
Kotter also recommends that you:
- Keep your communication simple
- Make use of metaphors, analogies and examples
- Allow for two-way communication
Finally, and most importantly, you need to communicate through your actions, not just your words. You need to model what you expect of others. And, you need your guiding coalition to do the same.
Mistake 5: Failing to Remove or Decrease Blockers of Change
There are always forces at play that serve to block or hinder people’s attempts to change. This is true even if they have bought into the change and they are trying to make it happen. Some of these blockers are soft people issues, while others are hard structural forces.
The idea that change is personal is one of the essential change management principles. So, it is not surprising that many of these forces exist inside of people. Knowledge, skill levels, beliefs and habits can all hinder people’s efforts to change. Such is the case with other forms of personal change including New Year’s resolutions and dieting.
Other barriers can take the form of hard organizational factors. These include existing structures, systems and ways of working. By their very nature, these factors nurture stability, not change. However, you can adjust them to work in your favour.
You and your guiding coalition need to take action that addresses these barriers. Yet, you can’t do it all at once. Start with foreseeable blockers that could have a large and detrimental impact on the success of your change initiative. Then address others as they emerge and as time allows.
Mistake 6: Allowing Momentum to Be Lost
Significant change takes time. So, it is understandable that even your most committed staff can lose their initial motivation. Once again, a personal analogy captures this point quite nicely. Think about people’s commitment to go walking each day, to go to the gym, or do some other form of daily exercise. Yes, some people do manage it. But, many don’t, especially over an extended timeframe.
The answer, according to Kotter’s Change Model, is to plan for and celebrate short-term wins.
In addition to helping sustain momentum, short-term wins:
- Provide evidence that people’s sacrifices and hard work are worth it
- Reward people who embraced the change with a pat on the back
- Reduce resistance from remaining cynics
- Reassure board members and shareholders
Merely hoping for short-term wins is not enough. You (and your guiding coalition) need to identify real opportunities to make this happen. Then, you need to plan to make it so (specific goals, action steps, milestones, and alike). Sprinkle these planned achievements over a 1-3-year period.
You also need to closely monitor activity in these areas so that you can adjust as necessary.
Then, once your short-term wins come to fruition, make sure that you:
- Take the time to acknowledge them
- Recognise the people behind them
- Celebrate the success publicly
Mistake 7: Declaring Victory Too Soon
In mistake 6, Kotter acknowledged that change takes time and that you need to plan short-term wins to sustain momentum.
Mistake 7, in the Kotter Change Model, happens because leaders fail to appreciate just how long significant change takes. Kotter estimates that in large, complex organizations transformational change can take 10+ years.
Of course, the number is not definitive, as it is dependent on the scope and scale of the change, as well as the size and nature of your organization. However, Kotter’s estimate helps to open people’s eyes to how long change can take.
Yet, even leader’s whose eyes are open can unintentionally declare victory too soon. They tend to do this in two ways. First, they acknowledge and celebrate short-term wins (a good thing). Second, they do it in a way that implicitly says the hard work is over and its time to relax – and there lies the problem.
Kotter’s answer involves you in sending a clear message, ‘yes we are progressing well, but we still have more to do.’ Rather than allowing staff to rest on their laurels, you need to use the achievement of early milestones as proof that change is possible, and to push for further change.
You continue to communicate a strong vision, while also:
- Empowering those below to initiate and manage aligned change projects
- Identify and reduce unnecessary interdependencies
Mistake 8: Not Sustaining Change
Accomplishing change is a hard and lengthy process. But, sustaining change is even more challenging.
Mistake 8 in the Kotter Change Model involves failing to plan for sustained change. To put it more bluntly, not planning for what will happen when you leave.
According to Kotter, you do this through anchoring your change in the corporate culture. Put another way; you need to make new behaviors the norm for the way we do things around here.
How do you do this? First, it is not easy. Second, unlike other change theorists, Kotter believes it is the last part of change – not the first.
Moreover, in his initial article on leading change, John talks about two specific strategies.
The first of these involved helping people make explicit links between improved performance and new ways of working. Talk about it a lot and never assume people will make these links themselves.
The second involves succession planning. You need to put a plan in place for hiring your replacement. This plan must involve hiring someone who values what you have created. And it must avoid hiring someone whose values mirror the old culture in your organization.
He outlines more strategies in his book, Leading Change. However, changing organizational culture is a complex topic in and of itself. You can read more about organizational culture and how to change it here.
Evaluation of the Kotter Change Model
The Kotter Change Model is well-known and popular. John’s book, Leading Change is a bestseller.
It is also broadly compatible with other process models of change.
For example, Kurt Lewin’s 3 stages of change, include:
- Helping people see the need to change (incorporated in Step 1 of the Kotter Model)
- Removing or reducing blockages to change (see Step 5 of the Kotter Model)
- Anchoring changes as the new normal (part of Step 8 of the Kotter Model)
Gerard Egan (1996) added visioning and strategy to the mix (see Step 3 of the Kotter Model).
However, the Kotter Change Model is also unique.
First, it focuses on transformational, strategic change led by the CEOs of large, complex organizations. For example, IBM, Ford and Walmart. So, not all the advice is relevant to leaders of:
- Smaller organizations or smaller units within a larger organization
- More minor changes within an organization
- Bottom-up, emergent changes within an organization
Second, it adds some unique steps, and some unique takes on other steps. For example:
- Step 1 in the Kotter Change model involves helping people see the need for change (a similarity to other models). Yet, it focuses on using urgency to drive people into change (unique to Kotter’s model).
- Step 2 (guiding coalition), Step 6 (short-term wins) and Step 7 (not declaring victory too soon) are all unique to Kotter’s model.
- Step 8 (anchoring change) is like Kurt Lewin’s refreezing stage but is unique in its use of establishing a new culture as the means of doing this.
Evidence Supporting Aspects of the Kotter Change Model
John provides many case studies to support his advice. But he fails to offer any empirical research to back his claims.
Since John published his article in 1995, researchers have conducted just one review of the model in its entirety. And they didn’t do this until 2012.
Still, there is research that supports some aspects of the model. For example, research supports the idea that:
- People are more likely to embrace change when they see a need for change1. And, more specifically it supports2 the use of outsiders (e.g. consultants) to reinforce this message.
- People expect leaders to have a vision3. Vision is an integral part of transformational leadership. And, transformational leadership has a positive impact on follower motivation and performance4.
- Effectively communicating your vision is essential for it to have any impact5. Having senior leaders model the changes they want to see in others is a potent form of communication6.
- Barriers to change do exist. These include soft factors7, such as skill levels and beliefs. They also include hard elements8 such as the centralization of decision making.
- Making visible progress is motivating, and it helps build a belief that further change is possible9. Moreover, it helps doubters believe that change is feasible and that they too can succeed in this new system.
- Leaders of change need to balance a focus on both short-term and long-term results10.
Evidence Challenging Aspects of the Kotter Change Model
There is also a lack of evidence supporting some aspects of the Kotter Change Model. This doesn’t mean that such elements are wrong or that they won’t work. Rather, it means that they haven’t been proven to work.
- Research supports the idea that followers must see a need for change. Yet, there is no research supporting John’s notion of behaving with urgency every day.
- Logic suggests that having powerful others helps to guide the change. But there is no research supporting John’s idea of a guiding coalition.
- Transformational leadership is linked to follower motivation. Yet, prominent academics note11 that there is no research showing that transformational leadership leads to large-scale, organizational
- Mature organizational cultures are difficult if not impossible to change12. Yet, simple changes to procedures13 (e.g. selection, performance appraisal, project reviews) can help sustain new initiatives. So too can feedback. Behavior that you reinforce is likely to be repeated14.
Kotter, J. P. (1995). Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail. Harvard Business Review, 73(2), 59-67.
Kotter, J. P. (1996). Leading Change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
Research Footnote References
Download research references supporting and challenging aspects of the Kotter Change Model.