Print This Post Print This Post

John Kotter, Harvard Emeritus professor and prolific author, has made a significant contribution to Leadership and Change for many years. In Change Management, he has put order in an area that was in need of structure. His 8 step model is now an ubiquitous piece in teaching, consulting, writing etc. As many people would agree, it is a classic text of most Business Schools. Indeed, many professionals would equate ‘Kotter’ to ‘Change’.

The language of the 8 step’s has penetrated everywhere providing a recipe for how to transform organizations, how to ‘do’ change management and, not a small thing, create a consulting business backed by the Kotter/ Harvard pedigree.

The 8 step model is neat, elegant, simple, rational, memorable, salable, and deeply out of date.

But, who would disagree with the rationality of:

  1. Establishing a sense of urgency
  2. Forming a powerful guiding coalition
  3. Creating a vision
  4. Communicating a vision
  5. Empower others to act on the vision
  6. Planning for and creating short-term wins
  7. Consolidating improvements and producing still more change
  8. Institutionalizing new approaches

I have never known how much Kotter thinks of this as truly sequential, although the fact that he calls these ‘steps’, makes me think he does. I challenge anybody to explain to me how you successfully implement this model today, in this sequence, in any organization.

The linear, sequential world has gone. We can’t wait until a sense of urgency has penetrated throughout the organization to act. The Guiding Coalition, if hierarchical, has less power than a bottom up or grassroots system. The vision today is never a completely formed ‘step’, it’s evolving all the time. Communicating to all ‘using every possible vehicle’, as stated, implies top-down communication, which fails to deliver 70% of the time. Empowering others and ‘encouraging risk’ implies that this is ‘granted’ by the leadership. But today, this is mainly behavioural, not a concession received, and the model does not account for this. Planning for and creating short term wins, sure. Many organizations stay in the ‘short term wins’ for the long term. Consolidating assumes reaching a point of stability. Stability? What is that? Institutionalizing new approaches. Ah! So the New Promised Land is reached.

I am fully conscious that I am caricaturizing the model, but, I don’t believe I am too far away from its essence. Again, it all may have made sense in the last Century, but not in the 21st Century. I wrote a long time ago (I think in this Century) that I would have less of a problem with Kotter’s model if we were to apply the Woody Allen definition of London: ‘all seasons in one afternoon’. Kotter’s steps mixed up, ‘all at the same time’ may make a bit of sense, although the model fails to stress the Elephant in the Room in many organizations: behaviours.

Top down, linear, rational, communication driven, change management projects fail at a rate close to 80%. They all have Kotter genes.

It would be dishonest to leave this on a blank criticism, so I will provide the alternative. Apologies, there is not much room left here today for a full articulation. No apologies, the  rationale is however expressed in Homo Imitans and Viral Change TM.

So, for a quick summary here. Organizational change and transformation today, including cultural transformation is bottom up, grassroots change (versus top down). It is behavioural based (versus exclusively communication based). Behaviours are spread and scaled up by peer to peer, internal social copying (an epidemic model, not information tsunami). The scale up is driven by a small number of individuals who have little to do with the hierarchy of the system (the ‘powerful coalition’ is grassroots, these people need to be found, not a volunteering model). It’s all cooked in the informal organization (versus teams and committees) and supported by a well orchestrated storytelling system. Leadership is Backstage Leadership TM : formal leadership supporting the distributed, grassroots real leaders, and shredding all their powerpoints.

And although there is some sequence in the above, it allows for quite a lot of parallel, emergent and simultaneous fires on the mountain.

Kotter model motto is ‘life is linear’. Viral Change TM motto is ‘life is short’.

Keep up with the Daily Thoughts

Twitter Email


  1. Lennart

    Hi Leandro,

    An important and interesting topic indeed. Please note that Kotter introduced an update of his model in November 2012. From a step-by-step approach to an accelerator-approach. This approach emphazises the informal, grass-root, passion driven aspects of change and provides critisism, or at least a middle way, to his own original approach. As I see it, this is a shift in orientation from “drive implementation of change” to “support an environment for change”, thus much more in line with the direction you point towards. So you and Kotter might have become more friends than you know about 🙂

    At the same time, I still hear about Kotters’ 8-steps instead of the 8-accelerators out there. So unfortunately it’s deeply rooted, and as a result, I bet we will see a lot of linear, top-down implementations of the 8-accelerators as well.

    But still – Kotters updated approach is at least “a step”, or rather a mental shift, in the right direction 😉


Would you like to comment?

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To search my website, please use the form below.

  Daily Thoughts

September 27th, 2023

Redefining Talent Wealth

The war on talent McKinsey consultants started it with a book of the same title. By focusing on what it […]

September 8th, 2023

What I Learnt From The Monks: A Little Anthropology Of Leadership And Space On One Page

My friends, monks of a Benedictine monastery in the Highlands, Scotland, spend most of the time in silence. I mean, […]

August 23rd, 2023

Can We Rescue DEI From Its Trap (The Label)?

Most of the problems and challenges in organizations, together with most of the solutions, are behavioural in nature. It’s about […]

August 10th, 2023

Restructuring to force collaboration, is likely to create more anxiety than collaboration. Structural solutions for behavioural problems hardly work.

Sometimes restructuring is done with the intention of solving a collaboration problem. ´A people´ don’t talk to ´B people´; if […]

July 18th, 2023

The ‘Impossible To Disagree With’ School Of Management

‘Good leaders have empathy, respect employees and set the example. If you want to change things, you need to have […]

June 29th, 2023

Large scale change is not small scale change repeated many times. Small wins repeated are lots of small wins.

Large scale change, as a series of cascading small scale interventions (often under the philosophy of ‘small wins’) has dominated […]

June 6th, 2023

Culture change is not long and difficult. But we make it so…

I suppose the question is how long is long and how difficult is difficult? In general, business and organizational consulting have […]

May 19th, 2023

Value is an overused term in business and, as such, it’s becoming meaningless

Value, as usually used, means transactional monetary value. Usually it doesn’t mean intrinsic value, or value per se. For example, […]

May 4th, 2023

The importance of ‘critical thinking.’ Your own critical thinking is more effective at making your workplace better than any generic employee survey.

Build your own Employee Engagement argument for free. You can’t go wrong. Here are three baskets full of concepts: Basket […]

April 21st, 2023

´Busy-Ness’ Is A Trap

I went to a big conference where I was introduced by the chairman like this: “Welcome everybody. Lovely to have […]

April 14th, 2023

Training and culture change. The love affair that ends in tears.

It seems to be very hard for people to get away from the idea that if we just put individuals […]

April 11th, 2023

Teamocracies and Networkracies have different citizens: in-Habitants in team-work, riders in net-work

The old view of the organization is something close to the old concept of a medieval city, where citizenship was […]

April 5th, 2023

3 Ways To Get Approval From Your CEO Or Your Leadership Team

Way number 1: My team has developed these three options, A, B and C. Which one do you want us […]

March 29th, 2023

A Cheat Sheet To Create A Social Movement Tip = to shape organizational culture since both are the same.

Mobilizing people. This is another of the Holy Grails (how many have I said we have?) in management. Whether you […]

March 16th, 2023

Critical Thinking Self-Test: A 10 Point Health Check For Your Organization And Yourself. If any of these are a good picture of your organization, you need to put ‘critical thinking’ in the water supply.

Test yourself, and your organization. Do any of these apply? Doing lots, too fast without thinking. High adrenaline, not sure […]

March 9th, 2023

A culture of safety or a culture of training in safety?

Cultures are created by behaviours becoming the norm. Safety is at the core of many industries. Significant budgets are allocated […]

March 2nd, 2023

Empowerment is an output. If you can visualize it, you can craft it.

The real question is, what do you want to see happening so that you can say ‘people are empowered’? Employee […]

February 24th, 2023

A simple question will jumpstart your organization into change. It will also save you from months of pain spent reorganizing your people and teams.

The following line will short-cut months of (building) ‘alignment’, integration, reorganization, team building, coalition building, and any situation in which Peter, […]

February 20th, 2023

Lead Via Peer-To-Peer Networks – If you don’t lead via peer-to-peer networks, you’re only driving your car in first gear.

Peer-to-peer work, transversal, spontaneous or not, collaboration, peer-to-peer influence, peer-to-peer activities of Viral Change™ champions or activists, all of this is the […]

February 7th, 2023

Write a script, not a strategic plan

If you care about the journey and the place, you need a story. If you have a good, compelling one, […]

January 26th, 2023

3 self-sabotaging mechanisms in organizations

Organizations, like organisms, have embedded mechanisms of survival, of growth and also of self-sabotage. These are 3 self-sabotage systems to […]

January 10th, 2023

Who should be involved in culture change? All inclusive versus going where the energy is.

Many times, in my consulting work, I find myself facing a dilemma: Do I involve many people on the client’s […]

December 23rd, 2022

Tell what won’t change – Introducing 1 of my 40 rules of change

In any change programme that any organization wants to start, they will start by thinking of the things that they […]

December 16th, 2022

Scale It – Introducing 1 of my 40 rules of change

When creating effective change in any organization, there are 40 rules that, in my experience, are the key between success […]

December 5th, 2022

Assets & Strengths Base – Introducing 1 of my 40 rules of change

For more than 30 years I have been involved in ‘change’ in organizations. Again and again, some fundamental principles, and often […]

November 25th, 2022

Campaign It… is 1 of my 40 rules of change

When you filter out the noise, when you try to extract the core, the fundamentals, those ‘universal rules’ of change […]

October 31st, 2022

Hybrid or not hybrid? That’s not the question…

Culture is the new workplace If you want to have a conversation about the future of work, the nature of […]

October 24th, 2022

‘Powered by Viral Change™’: A Social Transformation Platform for the organization of the 21st Century

When we started to work on Viral Change™, as a way to create large scale behavioural and cultural change, and […]

October 14th, 2022

Corporate tribes, intellectual ghettos and open window policies

We talk a lot about silos in organizations usually in the context of Business Units or divisions. But these are not […]

October 7th, 2022

Peer Networks are the strongest force of action inside the organization

Peer-to-peer works, transversal, spontaneous or not, collaboration, peer-to-peer influence, peer-to-peer activities of Viral Change™ champions or activists, all of this is […]