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The 8 step model is neat, elegant, simple, rational, memorable, salable, and deeply out of date.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:
- Establishing a sense of urgency
- Forming a powerful guiding coalition
- Creating a vision
- Communicating a vision
- Empower others to act on the vision
- Planning for and creating short-term wins
- Consolidating improvements and producing still more change
- 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’.