John P. Kotter’s Career, and His New Book, Are All About Change

In 2021, John P. Kotter published a new book, Change: How Organizations Achieve Hard-to-Imagine Results in Uncertain and Volatile Times. He could not have come up with a more relevant title, given the tectonic, sometimes disorienting, shifts in social and workplace organization in the midst of a global pandemic, international upheavals, and accompanying economic reconfigurations. 

Eight key change steps 

Kotter is best known as a professor at Harvard Business School and as a thought leader on the topics of organizational change, leadership development, and corporate culture. As an entrepreneur, he heads the consulting firm Kotter International, using the concepts he has developed over a lifetime of working with the Kotter 8-Step Process for Leading Change. 

This model urges leaders to take advantage of urgency; create a “guiding coalition;” build a cadre of enthusiastic volunteer change agents; establish a clear, detailed vision statement; break down barriers; leverage short-term wins to support longer-term end goals; keep accelerating; and allow changes to become new institutional norms. 

Originally studying to become a physicist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Kotter turned to business education and fulfilled his growing interest in coaching and motivating others through his doctoral work at Harvard. He went on to author award-winning and influential articles for the Harvard Business Review and books that have been translated into multiple languages and read by millions of readers worldwide. 

The human factor 

In a 2022 interview about Change, Kotter noted how the book centers on new findings in human behavior and the science of brain function, as applied to the management of organizations.  

In the five years prior to the book’s publication, Kotter and his team focused research on the reasons people often have a hard time coping with change. In the book, Kotter and co-authors Vanessa Akhtar and Gaurav Gupta analyze how organizations struggle to adapt to changing conditions—ranging from implementing innovative strategies to fulfilling specific goals for technological transformations. 

The idea is to provide readers with detailed information expanding their understanding of the science of human adaptability to change, while also giving them the strategies they need to create change-management plans in their own organizations. 

Insights you can put to work 

Readers of Kotter’s latest book will learn the reasons why human capacity to leverage opportunities for greater success, as well as our ability to confront challenges and surmount threats, is central to business development in today’s world. And they will find useful case histories giving examples of what has and hasn’t worked for others. 

Kotter and his co-authors drive home the point that change that comes in small increments isn’t going to be enough to tackle the more multifaceted challenges in a world where few things remain certain, and where nimbleness and flexibility are the key to survival. Therefore, they work to demonstrate how to build out the sweeping, dramatic kinds of healthy change that are needed to truly revitalize an organization.  

The book also describes how to harness the various elements of Kotter’s classic change strategy to significantly boost the chances of success across multiple types of organizational efforts. Kotter and his coauthors aim to give readers access to the range of best practices that will make positive change happen quickly, thoroughly, and sustainably over the long term. 

Survive and thrive 

Readers have pointed out that the book shows how most of us underestimate how much the innate human survival instinct can swamp our ability to pay attention to opportunities to adapt, invent better responses, and serve as effective change leaders. The book offers a compelling mapping of the often-unconscious processes that make us unable to respond to change in time, or as effectively as we otherwise might. This aspect of the book—how to “survive and thrive”—has proven to be particularly resonant. 

The framework of Change is structured around three key concepts: human biology and psychology, contemporary organizational design, and research into change leadership. 

Kotter and his co-authors explain how our physiology dictates a constant dynamic between our normal survival-seeking and thrive-seeking behaviors, as we scan our environments for threats in the first case and opportunities in the second. Seeking survival through being alert to threats fosters fear and anxiety and leads to a tight focus on problem-solving. Seeking to thrive brings about a sense of excitement and passion for what we are doing and whets both our curiosity and our capacity to innovate. 

Change shows how the hierarchical structure of modern organizational design is pre-calibrated to favor reliability and control, while keeping us less adaptable and nimble. Finally, in discussing change in the context of leadership research, the book revisits Kotter’s eight-step change acceleration process and the related four core principles guiding change. 

Readers can use these concepts to promote self-awareness as well as create a more intentional, and effective, strategy of change management in any type of organization.

Solving the Work-from-Home, Work-Life Balance Problem

The seismic social and economic shifts brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic have seen large numbers of people working from home while juggling multiple other responsibilities and relationships. This new landscape of work has brought its own benefits and challenges, many previously unanticipated on such a tremendous scale.  

In particular, there’s the stress that comes with the “new normal” as we try to reconfigure our entire concept of what an optimum work-life balance looks like. So how do experts on this new dining room table workforce think we’re doing? It’s a mixed scorecard, and employers have a number of issues to address.  

The dangers of too much connection 

The commute, the flexibility, and perks like taking leisurely neighborhood walks during break time have changed many people’s work routines for the better. But plenty of us have also experienced the downsides, and being unable to completely disconnect tops the list. The demarcations between one’s personal and professional lives, already fuzzy in recent years, has become even more fluid.  

Some professionals, especially those living in smaller apartments, have constant reminders of their workplace tools in sight 24/7. And, depending on the state of local quarantine regulations, many now feel awkward saying “no” to out-of-hours work, since the previous excuse of prearranged plans isn’t always plausible. The sense of time itself can warp to such an extent that employees and managers now see themselves working late into the night on projects, and often feel they need to remain constantly available to one another. 

Technology literally in our faces 

Surveillance has become another hot-button issue in this remote work era. Recent media reports of intrusive software surveillance programs indicate that they are contributing to mutual mistrust among employees and employers. Mandatory software installed on employees’ computers can track eye movements in an attempt to gauge their degree of attention, and in some cases have captured images of family interactions within employees’ homes.  

Equity issues have also risen to the top of the list of concerns: Some employees of color have found that the facial recognition programs they are required to use when doing sensitive work are unable to recognize them consistently, resulting in the need to log in over and over again, even while under tight deadlines.  

A recipe for burnout 

The longstanding mindset within parts of Western societies is that work should be the central focus of an adult’s life. Many professionals have internalized the feeling that, in today’s economy, if they’re not concentrating on tasks and screens, and responding instantly to every pinging inquiry, their time is being wasted. You don’t have to be a mental health expert to understand that these expectations contribute to no one’s productivity, and that in fact they play an almost certain role in burnout.  

A relaxed take on productivity 

On the other hand, a number of studies have shown that working from home—with fewer distractions and in a comfortable location—can actually boost productivity, morale, and overall job satisfaction. For the many whose pre-pandemic commutes ate up two or more hours out of every day, the extra time and feeling of wellbeing created an additional boost to performance.  

A new way forward 

Studies on the mental health effects of telework during the pandemic bear out the need for employers to establish clear guidelines that help everyone manage workload distribution, roles, performance indicators, and boundaries. It’s also important to have solid training, tech support, and networking policies in place.  

Industrial psychologists and other experts offer a number of ways to counteract the unhealthy tendencies that have followed us into remote work, while boosting the effectiveness of healthy strategies: 

  • Instead of investing in invasive surveillance software that shows a lack of trust in your team, provide better training for managers on how to lead remote workforces. 
  • Facilitate discussions of appropriate boundaries between managers and teams, allowing individuals to identify what their preferred work-life balance looks like.  
  • Establish central ground rules—mandatory attendance at key meetings, for example—while building as much nimbleness into everyone’s schedule expectations as possible. And be clear about communication expectations, too: a boss with young children who does his or her best work after 8 pm might need to specify to the team that an email after hours isn’t meant to command instant attention.  
  • Employees can also be encouraged to turn off Slack, chats, and other work communication platforms when they’re no longer technically working, and when they shouldn’t feel obligated to craft instant responses to messages. 
  • Help employees structure their time by creating easy-to-follow schedules and routines. A morning check-in for everyone can start the day off on a high note and help everyone stay focused on priorities. This idea is helpful but can be more challenging when working across multiple time zones. 
  • Pair helpful structures with flexibility. Zone good rule of thumb is that, unless a task is immediately time-sensitive, agree that it can be done at any time and in any sequence, as long as it’s completed by a deadline.  
  • Make sure that employees know they’re expected to ask for the tools they need to do their jobs remotely. Computers, tech support, mousepads, and the like are all items and services that employers should expect to provide for their remote teams as a matter of course.   
  • Offer a means for your remote team members to chat and socialize informally with virtual “watercooler” opportunities. These can be enabled through chat, videoconferencing, or other tech-based solutions.  
  • Closing check-ins and routines can also help everyone end their workday on a positive note when geography aligns, while setting direction for the following day. A similar approach can help teams handing off work if the end of one workday aligns with the start of the day for a team in a complementary geographic region. 

Bucks County Races Offer Fitness and Fun Throughout the Year

Bucks County in Pennsylvania is one of the most beautiful and history-rich places to run, hike, or bike in the country. Luckily, local organizations and communities here host a variety of themed runs and walks throughout the year, ranging from easy flat courses that welcome first-timers, all the way to endurance-challenging triathlons.  

Mark your calendar for this abundance of fun events and experience the warmth of community participation, the thrill of competition, and often the added satisfaction of contributing to a worthy cause.  

Here are only a few of the region’s signature seasonal events for runners, walkers, and triathletes: 

  1. 9/11 Heroes Run 

The 9/11 Heroes Run in Doylestown happens every year on or around September 11. It is designed to honor the many selfless acts of service by first responders, military personnel, and civilians whose sacrifices saved lives during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. A 5K race welcomes runners and walkers of all abilities and is one of about 90 Heroes Run events worldwide. Each year, a total of about 60,000 people participate.  

The Travis Manion Foundation sponsors the 9/11 Heroes Run series. First Lieutenant Travis Manion was killed in the line of duty in Iraq in 2007. But he saved every other member of his patrol when he deliberately drew enemy sniper fire away from them. The foundation named in his honor works to inspire future generations of Americans to help create a better world through service to others, with the 9/11 Heroes Run as its central commitment. Doylestown was the location of the first Heroes Run 13 years ago.  

  1. Peace Valley Fall Duathlon 

The Peace Valley Duathlon typically takes place in late September or early October, offering an exciting combination of running and cycling. It includes both longer and short duathlons for adults and a Kids Rock Duathlon for ages 6 to 15. Adults can also participate in the two- or three-member Short Race Team or Long Race Team events. Participants begin at Sailor’s Point Boat Launch at Lake Galena in Peace Valley Park—a starting point that allows them to enjoy some of the most scenic routes in Bucks County.  

Peace Valley Park also offers a duathlon event in the spring. Both events are highly accessible and beginner-friendly. Organizers urge early registration, since the limited number of slots tend to sell out fast.  

  1. Bridge to Bridge Run  

Bucks County’s Bridge to Bridge (B2B) Run and Relay is another fall event, and this one starts and finishes at the Tinicum Park Towpath in the village of Upper Black Eddy. Teams of four to seven participants, approved in advance by the Bucks County Roadrunners (BCRR) organization, take on the scenic, 51-mile circuit. The relay runs across two of the region’s famous historic bridges, Centre Bridge and Frenchtown Bridge.  

The BCRR group sponsors a number of other outdoor events, welcoming runners and enthusiasts of all skill and experience levels.  

  1. Yes You Can 5K 

The historic borough of Yardley, founded in the 17th century and nestled against the Delaware River, sponsors the annual Yes You Can 5K run in the spring. The event has a true community feel, beginning at Pennsbury Middle School and winding through several neighborhoods and another local school. The chip-timed race offers a flat course accessible to participants of all abilities, and welcomes walkers as well.  

For its 2022 incarnation, the Yes You Can race will be a hybrid event, offering two options: Runners can race the pre-set course in person on April 24, or race their own routes on their own time between April 16 and 24. As organizers put it, the event is all about “building confidence, building community.”  

  1. YMCA Bucks County Strong 5K 

Also in spring, the YMCA Bucks County Strong 5K gathers the community in Doylestown for another popular, family-friendly race starting at the Central Bucks West High School campus and finishing at the school’s stadium. While this event went virtual in 2021, organizers have planned a traditional in-person run for May 15, 2022.  

Proceeds from the event will assist the YMCA of Bucks County Operation Compassion Recovery program. Started as a targeted response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Operation Compassion assists families experiencing food insecurity, medical and mental health challenges, financial difficulties, and other issues. 

  1. Steelman Racing Triathlon  

The Steelman Racing Triathlon is an August event held in Quakertown. Gearing up for its 18th year in 2022, the Olympic-style triathlon is open to new and experienced triathletes alike. It includes a high school component with the Pennsylvania State Championship Race.  

The triathlon starts and concludes at Lake Nockamixon State Park, home to some lovely running and hiking trails, prime picnicking spots, and opportunities for biking, sailing, hunting, fishing, and numerous other sports. Participants swim the lake, bike through a closed course along the area’s rolling hill country, and run a tree-shaded route on newly paved roadways that skirt the lake.  

In addition to the main Olympic-style triathlon, the Steelman series in Bucks County includes other events such as sprints, relays, and races with aquabike components.  

Revealing the Powerful and Revolutionary Promise of the Kotter Change Model 

“No matter how you look at it, the world continues to change—faster.” That’s one of the quotes prominently displayed on the website of Dr. John Kotter’s eponymous consulting firm. His is one of the world’s most prominent companies helping all types of organizations navigate the change that continues to accelerate the pace of our personal and professional lives. 

The Kotter Change Model offers business and nonprofit leaders a detailed yet accessible framework for leading any type of organizational change. Based on Kotter’s decades of experience as a professor at Harvard Business School, an entrepreneur, and a consultant, the Kotter 8-Step Process for Leading Change breaks down like this:

Step 1: Establishing Urgency

Establishing a sense of urgency comes first, the essential initial spur toward constructive action.

Step 2: Building a Coalition

Second, a leader needs to assemble what Kotter calls “a guiding coalition.” This group of key influencers, selected from within an organization, will be the driving force supporting that sense of urgency and driving creative solutions going forward.

Step 3: Crafting a Strategic Vision

The third step on Kotter’s list is the formation of a strategic vision and associated initiatives. Kotter wants us to build a very specific playbook delineating our organization-specific vision for the future, built on critical analysis of what did and did not work in the past. And he wants to see this vision anchored to defined initiatives that will help it become reality. 

Step 4: Recruiting Volunteers

The fourth goal is to bring an entire volunteer army on board. That means getting people excited, motivated, and mobilized at every tier of an organization. These aren’t “volunteers” in the sense that they are unpaid cheerleaders for your organization.

They are people, again, drawn from within your own ranks whose enthusiasm for your change mission will help them gather important information, contribute to consensus-building, and keep themselves and one another engaged and on target. 

Step 5: Eliminating Barriers

This is one of the most crucial components of the change process, because it is a necessary condition for allowing the activities in the other steps to develop properly. You’ll need to focus on removing any top-down organizational practices that hamper problem-solving and the search for the best solutions.

A big part of this fifth step also involves de-siloing your organization. You must open up the playing field for change-oriented work to go on regardless of individuals’ job titles or the names of their departments or teams. 

Step 6: Producing Short-Term Wins

Demonstrating a capacity to produce short-term wins is another major step. As the leader, it’s your job to keep a project’s energy levels high, to support your teams through cycles of waxing and waning enthusiasm, as well as through periods of both success and failure.

Your team needs to be able to step back occasionally and enjoy the smaller victories along the way to the ultimate goal. This will build morale over the long term. It will also foster enthusiasm for lengthy projects.

Step 7: Sustaining Momentum

But after the first few successes, what then? Kotter’s seventh step involves sustaining the acceleration you’ve built up. At this point, you can expect new complexities to emerge, complicating your team’s ability to deliver on specific tasks and overall strategy. You’ll need to help sustain one more big push toward your goal.

Here’s where you spend some of the good-will capital and credibility you’ve gained over previous time invested in your change project. Look for ways to keep improving the work you and your team are doing. And, in Kotter’s words, stay “relentless” in your iteration of one change after another until your vision has been achieved. 

Step 8: Implementing Change

In Kotter’s last step, change has not only become a reality, it has become part of your organizational DNA. This is the time to consolidate and create long-lasting culture change. You’ll be better able to do this if you communicate to your team the explicit linkages between their new ways of thinking and working and their ongoing and future success.

This is also a time to broadcast your success to external stakeholders and the public. Enjoy the acclaim you and your team have earned, even as you keep your eye on opportunities for further change that your organization will need to stay both competitive and relevant. 

A Three-Step Precursor Model

Kotter’s change model fleshes out an earlier one designed by social psychologist Kurt Lewin, who posited a three-step schematic. He first asked leaders to “unfreeze” their organizational inertia by clearly communicating the need for change. Because the natural tendency of many people is to be resistant to change, Lewin advised leaders to emphasize the ways in which their organizations had “frozen” into unproductive behaviors that were hindering further growth.

In Lewin’s model, an organization next begins the “change” or “movement” phase, as it transforms itself into a new way of being. This second step focuses on implementation, while acknowledging the lingering fears that some in an organization may have, especially as vision becomes reality. Preparing teams for their new reality will involve still more communication, dialogue, and support. 

The third step for Lewin is called “refreezing.” This is, of course, analogous to Kotter’s eighth step of consolidation. It makes reference to the same program of institutionalizing the desired change through positive reinforcement and celebration of effort. 

Helping Build 21st Century Organizations

Kotter’s model has drawn widespread praise for the amount of detail it packs into an easy-to-understand framework. Organizations and other consultancies worldwide have adapted its premises to facilitate positive changes of all kinds. It has been used to guide structural improvements and redeployments of resources, to initiate mission-critical conversations with employees engaged in every type of work, and to improve and diversify internal cultures in line with contemporary perspectives and goals.