Leading Change

Rating: 3/5

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 Occasionally, the content and references can feel a bit outdated.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:

  1. Establishing a sense of urgency
  2. Creating the guiding coalition
  3. Developing a vision and strategy
  4. Communicating the changing vision
  5. Empowering employees for broad-based action
  6. Generating short-term wins
  7. Consolidating gains and producing more change
  8. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. Second, it motivates people to take action in the right direction, even if the initial steps are personally painful.
  3. 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:

  1. It’s visible; large numbers of people can see for themselves whether the result is real or just hype.
  2. It’s unambiguous; there can be little argument over the call.
  3. 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