John Kotter addresses a major challenge facing modern business leaders - how to act quickly and remain relevant in highly competitive environments.
Kotter's 2014 book 'Accelerate' updated his influential 8-step process to support the change needs of modern organizations.
Has Kotter's 8-step change model changed beyond recognition? Find out what's new and how the model applies today.
We'll start with a brief introduction to Kotter's original 8-step model and quickly move to discover the core changes he proposed in his updated model in 2014. The article ends with the current evolution of the John Kotter model of change as published in Change (2021).
In 1995 John Kotter published an article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR).
The article was "Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail" in which Kotter discusses eight mistakes organisations make that result in unsuccessful change.
Briefly, the mistakes, or errors, he identified are:
While the article points to reasons change can fail Kotter also refers to eight phases that are necessary for effective change.
It's these eight phases for successful change he explores in his book Leading Change which was published a year later in 1996.
"Leading Change" remains an authoritative guide to change management and is named by Time Magazine as one of the 25 most influential business management books.
Following the success of "Leading Change" John Kotter wrote The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations (2002). In the book Kotter clarifies the principles of the 8-step change model.
A dominant theme of the book is that people really need to feel an emotional connection to truly embrace change. Feelings are a powerful motivator.
In Our Iceberg is Melting: Changing and Succeeding under Any Conditions (2006) John Kotter and Holger Rathgeber use a metaphor of penguins and their responses to a melting iceberg to illustrate the 8-step process and make the model accessible to a wider audience.
Kotter's model is a leading model of change, so why update it?
It makes sense for an authority in the area of change management to acknowledge that change is constant - and that even the best model of change is not immune to this.
Aging change management models are open to the criticism that they've lost relevance in the modern world and John Kotter acknowledges this in his 2014 update...
'Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World' (2014) represents a significant update to Kotter's theory and expands on the 8-step model he originally presented in 1996.
In his words: "What I present in this book adds to my prior work. This is not a case in which new realities mean that old ideas are no longer valid. It is more a case of adding to previous conclusions in a way that takes us to some very big new ideas." (Kotter, 2014: ix).
Once again, 'Accelerate' began it's life as an award-winning article published in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) in 2012 and was transformed into a book two years later.
I really recommend you read the HBR article 'Accelerate' to get to the core of Kotter's updated 8-step model of change.
Not too much ... if all you do is compare the eight step process.
You have to delve deeper to understand how John Kotter aligns the eight-step model to today's competitive and demanding business environment.
I'm going to make this easy for you.
Today business must continuously monitor threats and opportunity and take action immediately. Change is constant and organizations need to be flexible and ready to respond at any time.
This reality led Kotter to propose that the structure of modern organizations does not allow them to manage rapid change.
According to John Kotter established organizations are restricted by hierarchical structures that limit their agility.
Hierarchies support efficient and effective day-to-day business procedures but they struggle to manage change at the speed demanded of them.
They are slow to take advantage of opportunities and respond slowly to threats to the business.
John Kotter notes that most businesses begin as very flexible networks which, in the course of time, take on a hierarchical structure in order to manage growth and ensure efficiency.
While this is practical and gets the job done hierarchical organizations cannot respond quickly to threats or opportunities.
The new Kotter change model proposes a dual system composed of the existing hierarchy and a second operating system that is able to respond quickly to change and opportunities.
This second operating system has a network-like structure and closely resembles the network-like structure of a start-up company.
The network he proposes is a second system that complements the existing hierarchy and company freeing it to do what it does best.
This complementary system focuses on continual assessment, reflection of the company within its existing ecosystem, and an ability to remain agile enough to react quickly and with creativity to change and opportunities in its sphere.
"The basic structure is self explanatory: hierarchy on one side and network on the other. The network side mimics successful enterprises in their entrepreneurial phase, before there were organization charts showing reporting relationships, before there were formal job descriptions and status levels." (Kotter, 2014: 20).
Listen to John Kotter describe the dual structure:
Five principles are at the core of the dual operating system's success. In the 2012 HBR article John Kotter describes these five principles as:
Core to the strategy network are eight 'accelerators' which enable the network to function, and which you'll recognize from the 8-step process originally proposed by Kotter in 1996.
John Kotter still refers to these on the Kotter International website as the 8-step process for Leading Change.
Kotter continues to recognize the importance of creating a sense of urgency in order to avoid complacency regarding change. The concept of the 'Big Opportunity' is introduced as a focus that the organization should align with and constantly reinforce.
The Guiding Coalition is central to the network and consists of volunteers representing all levels, departments and skills in the hierarchy. All members are equal.
The vision statement is created and is focused on capitalizing on the identified big opportunity. It appeals to people's emotions and sets out strategic initiatives to achieve that vision.
It's the Guiding Coalition's responsibility to communicate the vision and the strategy in such a way that employees buy into the message, commit to it, and feel motivated to volunteer to be a part of the change.
Anything that gets in the way of achieving the vision is identified and solved. Kotter sees suitably qualified and skilled members of the network
volunteering to deal with an identified barrier and then implementing the solution within the hierarchy.
The Guiding Coalition must celebrate and communicate visible and significant short term wins in order to generate motivation and confirm that decisions and actions are benefiting the organization.
Kotter believes the sense of urgency around the big opportunity must be maintained with new projects, themes and volunteers in order to invigorate people and the process. His catchphrase in the 2012 HBR article 'Accelerate' is "Never let up. Keep learning from experience. Don’t declare victory too soon."
Change needs to be assimilated into the organization. It needs to be normalized in the culture of the organization and the link made between the change and organizational success. Methods to ensure leadership development and succession need to be integrated in the organization.
The 8-step process continues to be used within the hierarchy to manage 'normal' change processes.
High risk change that requires speed, agility and innovation to deal with threats or to take advantage of opportunities is dealt with by the network using the eight accelerators.
John Kotter describes three main differences between the eight steps and the eight accelerators:
Kotter introduces the concept of the Big Opportunity in Accelerate (2014) as the core around which the 8-step process is focused.
Focusing action on a big opportunity helps attract the 'volunteer army' of those employees who are motivated to make a difference in this area and sustains the sense of urgency needed to accomplish the vision.
The big opportunity should be rational, emotionally compelling and memorable in order to attract motivated volunteers.
Kotter's latest book, Change: How Organizations Achieve Hard-to-Imagine Results in Uncertain and Volatile Times (2021) has evolved from ongoing research at Kotter International.
Specifically, this book is inspired by three research themes that Kotter believes will contribute to "mobilizing more leadership from more people to drive change faster" (p32).
Kotter refers to human neurobiology and 'brain science' that dictates our response to threats and opportunities. The 'Survive Channel' shifts us into fight or flight mode when we perceive a threat (basic survival), or we can choose to tap into our 'Thrive Channel' and focus on opportunities instead. The focus on opportunities leads to increased energy, passion, collaboration and innovation and seems to be located in positive psychology and appreciative inquiry.
Kotter has previously illustrated the limits of the "management-centric" hierarchy in organizations (Accelerate, 2014). Here he revisits the dual operating system proposed in Accelerate (2014) that provides reliability and efficiency (hierarchy), and speed and agility (network) to organizations.
Kotter refers to previously published research that highlights the reasons for failed transformation, and what is needed for successful change (Kotter:1995, 1996, 2002, 2006, 2012, 2014). In addition, he recommends a number of guiding principles (Kotter, 2012) that help to support and accelerate change in complex organizations.
Change (2021) represents a valuable evolution of John Kotter's theory of change in organizations. There are new ideas, such as the Survive/Thrive model, but you may feel disappointed if you are already very familiar with his model of change. However, this is an excellent introduction to the John Kotter model of change if you're reading it for the first time.
As there is no direct reference to Kotter's original 8-step model in this book I would always recommend using this page to revisit his earlier work and understand the model's evolution to its current form.
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