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.