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It’s 25 years since Harvard Business Review published John Kotter’s seminal article ‘Why Transformation Efforts Fail‘. Viewed by many as the source of the Nile it’s cited as the origin of the ‘84% of transformations fail ‘ insight*.

So as it it’s silver anniversary year I thought I’d take a look at the original article and the eight recommended steps to transformational change asking which insights endure. I’ll pepper in what I’ve come to know as sound and repeatable approaches for teams to support transformational change.

By Angie Main

Kotter’s 8 Steps

1. Creating a sense of urgency

Analysis paralysis, risk aversion and lots of passive-aggressive push were the key (ineffective) behaviours Kotter noted as the typical starting behaviours for transformational change with new leaders typically creating false urgency as a call to action.

2021 lens: Covid has created a near panic level of urgency (think VUCA), In an almost complete paradigm shift we are driven daily by urgency. Beware speed for its own sake though. Being keen to just get going, and the resulting failure with time spent retro fixing has taught me how important it is to create time to help leaders reflect on their own ‘change readiness‘ before starting.

Optimism alone isn’t enough to make a start.

My observation is that leaders who understand and harness pace succeed. Great teams rarely get to  ‘urgent, don’t panic ‘ state (without a headwind) as they stay close to customers, the market and their data – constantly scanning for ways to add value incrementally and in groundbreaking ways proactively.

Silos kill alignment and generate waste. You need to review your operating principles and systems. Do you have clear standards? Do you expect folks to stand behind the agreed change or do you even inadvertently encourage dissent?

2. Build a guiding coalition

John Kotter warns of the hero leader who takes on or promotes change without gaining enough support. I imagine that in the ’90s more of us acted as heroes command and control leaders. We were undoubtedly trained and rewarded this way. Kotter advises not to go it alone.

2021 lens: Hero leaders should retrain or hand the baton to Servant Leaders, those that balance a concern for results AND relationships and with practice think ‘we before me’ as a default. Ensure you have a diverse cross-functional team that can collaborate and challenge in equal measure, co-creates and hold itself and your outcomes to account. Better still, have a customer panel. A.  re you delivering value for the customer or blind to their real needs?

Great change isn’t about doing to people but for them so engage, engage, engage, listen, listen, listen and cocreate for best results.

‘alone we go fast, together we go further’.

3. Form a strategic vision

The point that jumps decades with ease; woolly directives and project plans fail. So form a clear and compelling vision statement.

2021 lens: Keep it simple. The myriad of channels and opportunities to communicate should help but often don’t. Avoid lofty rhetoric, help folks join the dots and be honest when the change isn’t well, just that sexy.

Great leaders help everyone see the part they see in the vision by translating into outcomes. Outcomes have the magical ability to blur boundaries (in a good way) and dissolve silos.

Herb Kelleher of South West Airlines famously said ‘we have a strategic plan, its called doing things’.

4. Convey the new vision

JK’s 4th recommendation and one of the most powerful. He talks of the very real threat of under-communication. For me, that means poor messaging, poor cut through or lack of follow-through.

2021 lens: Read as dialogue over broadcast communication, read as deeds over words. Change is behaviour, behaviour is what we do daily.

Communication comes as deeds and words. So take the effort away from your messaging – keeping it simple means less energy used understanding the vision and more spent on delivery tactics.

We’re an increasingly cynical crowd to ‘message’ to. The latest Edelman Global Trust barometer reports a worrying ongoing decrease in trust across four institutions (NGO, Companies, Media, Government). Folks are rejecting rhetoric, false news and spin. Keep it simple, transparent and model what you say.

5. Empower others (remove impediments)

JK regarded bosses who wouldn’t change as the worse blocker. He saw lip service to change as common and deadly.

2021 application: Great teams know how to challenge effectively and flush out false harmony. It’s vital that teams practice saying the hard stuff, start small and build psychological safety. Great teams are just that, not a bunch of talented solo players.

Empowering others (distributing power and decision making) speeds up change and reduces bottlenecks.

How transparent is your work? Bottlenecks and impediments surface more easily and quickly when work is visual and folks are encouraged to speak up.

Great leaders do not deter and defer decisions.

6. Generate short term wins & 7. Sustain acceleration

In essence, build momentum and recognition into the plan. As John Kotter stated that transformational change takes time!

2021 application: Where to start…iterate, pivot, check and respond, be (not do) agile. Working iteratively is almost the norm, a huge leap from the way we worked in 1995. Being adaptive is vital and you know as well as I do that an iterative, adaptive approach underwrites success.

The very best teams I’ve worked with or known of think big and act small.

8. Institute change

The point made in 1995 was don’t celebrate too soon. Ensure change is embedded.

2021 application; Faint praise is rhetoric, I won’t repeat my point on the dangers of rhetoric.

We can certainly help change stick, the best way to do so is to start your change (and vison) with the end in mind, break it into smaller chunks/timeframes and create alignment to outcomes before you begin.

As a final point, I politely disagree – celebrate even small wins, life’s hard enough, we all need encouragement. Positivity is contagious.

Footnote  – the very sage David Wilkinson editor of Oxford Review recently unpicked the magic 84% quote which turns out to be an inference.


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