In Leading Change, Kotter lays out a process for implementing large changes within an organization whether those changes are pivots in culture, business direction, or both. Occasionally, the content and references can feel a bit outdated. However, I was still able to pull out many gems that are applicable to my day-to-day work particularly around communicating a vision and setting short-term objectives for teams.
Kotter process for leading change includes eight individual stages:
- Establishing a sense of urgency
- Creating the guiding coalition
- Developing a vision and strategy
- Communicating the changing vision
- Empowering employees for broad-based action
- Generating short-term wins
- Consolidating gains and producing more change
- Anchoring new approaches in the culture
While these are the eight steps to success, Kotter also lays out the opposite-typical reasons why companies fail in large changes:
Too much past success, a lack of visible crises, low performance standards, insufficient feedback from external constituencies, and more all add up to: “Yes, we have our problems, but they aren’t that terrible and I’m doing my job just fine,” or “Sure we have big problems, and they are all over there.”
I thought that was a brilliant quote and one that I’ve certainly dealt with in various forms in the past.
On describing a vision:
A useful rule of thumb: Whenever you cannot describe the vision driving a change initiative in five minutes or less and get a reaction that signifies both understanding and interest, you are in for trouble.
For the first step in the change process, establishing a sense of urgency:
Increasing urgency demands that you remove sources of complacency or minimize their impact…setting higher standards both formally in the planning process and informally in day-to-day interaction; changing internal measurement systems that focus on the wrong indexes; vastly increasing the amount of external performance feedback everyone gets; rewarding both honest talk in meetings and people who are willing to confront problems; and stopping baseless happy talk from the top.
On why vision is essential:
- By clarifying the general direction for change, by saying the corporate equivalent of “we need to be south of here in a few years instead of where we are today,” it simplifies hundreds or thousands of more detailed decisions.
- Second, it motivates people to take action in the right direction, even if the initial steps are personally painful.
- It helps coordinate the actions of different people, even thousands and thousands of individuals, in a remarkably fast and efficient way.
Kotter explicitly laid out the details of generating short-term wins, something that I think gets overlooked. In his mind, great short-term wins have the following concerns:
- It’s visible; large numbers of people can see for themselves whether the result is real or just hype.
- It’s unambiguous; there can be little argument over the call.
- It’s clearly related to the change effort.
Towards the end of the book, Kotter goes into two chapters that I found interesting-his thoughts on the future of work and some ideas around being a lifelong learner. I found the lifelong learner portion personally compelling. Here are the mental habits he lays out:
- Risk taking: willingness to push oneself out of comfort zones
- Humble self-reflection: Honest assessment of successes and failures, especially the latter
- Solicitation of opinions: Aggressive collection of information and ideas from others
- Careful listening: Propensity to listen to others
- Openness to new ideas: Willingness to view life with an open mind