“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.