Book Review: Leading Change


August 2005

Book Review: Leading Change

CIDMIconNewsletter JoCarol Gau, BMC Software, Inc.

In my career as an information development manager, I have dealt with change and managed change. There is a distinction between these two actions, or reactions, as the case may be. Dealing with change in a corporate environment is reactive. Change is forced on you, and you do what you must to keep your job, be productive, and maintain your optimism. Managing change, I would argue, is also reactive, or at least has reactive elements. In managing change, you recognize change, discover its unique opportunities for you and perhaps your organization, and find ways to keep adding value in a dynamic environment.

As my career has evolved in the past two years, I have found myself in another relationship to change-that of driving change or leading change. Leading change requires vision. It is proactive instead of reactive. I knew a company vice president who was fond of saying, “You can lead change or be changed.” By leading change, you can empower yourself and your organization in ways that might not have seemed possible. You can often control your own destiny and that of your group.

A source that I have found useful is a book (recommended by CIDM and highlighted at the Best Practices conference last fall) titled Leading Change by John P. Kotter. In this book, Kotter, a Harvard professor, provides an eight-stage process for leading change in your organization. The type of change Kotter envisions is large, sweeping change that transforms organizations from mediocrity to greatness and keeps them competitive in a rapidly changing world economy.

I have summarized this process for change and applied the process to a smaller, but significant, change effort in my own department. A summary of this exercise is in the accompanying article titled “Leading Change Through an Offshoring Effort.”

Kotter defines the eight stages as follows:

Stage 1: Establish a Sense of Urgency

Stage 2: Create the Guiding Coalition

Stage 3: Develop a Vision and Strategy

Stage 4: Communicate the Change Vision

Stage 5: Empower Employees for Broad-Based Action

Stage 6: Generate Short-Term Wins

Stage 7: Consolidate Gains and Produce More Change

Stage 8: Anchor New Approaches in the Culture

Stage 1: Establishing a Sense of Urgency

The first stage in Kotter’s process for leading change is to root out complacency and establish a sense of urgency. Kotter explains, “Establishing a sense of urgency is crucial to gaining needed cooperation. With complacency high, transformations usually go nowhere because few people are even interested in working on the change problem” (page 36).

Kotter suggests “ways of raising the urgency level” to gain cooperation and commitment and believes it is sometimes necessary to “create a crisis” to supercharge a complacent team. Sometimes leaders fail to make necessary gains because people don’t have a clear understanding of the problems or a genuine desire to address them. I must admit that the groundwork for changes is often the result of a compelling problem that must be corrected. Creating changes is extremely difficult if people are satisfied with the status quo.

Stage 2: Creating the Guiding Coalition

The second stage is the creation of what Kotter calls “the guiding coalition.” Kotter maintains that you cannot effect major change by going it alone. You must assemble a group to lead the change effort across the organization. This group must possess the following key characteristics: position, power, expertise, credibility, and leadership. Kotter explains what each of these characteristics entails. He believes that they are all necessary components for driving successful change.

Stage 3: Developing a Vision and Strategy

The third stage seems to be a foregone conclusion for driving change in an organization, but according to Kotter, vision and strategy are often overlooked. Kotter builds a persuasive argument that even though change can be implemented by a strong, dictatorial boss, it occurs much faster when everyone involved understands why the change is needed. Kotter has many examples of committees that start out with good intentions, only to get bogged down in bureaucracy, conflict, and premature termination of the project because they have not reached a consensus about their long-term goal. Kotter provides examples of strong visionary statements and why they work and lists the characteristics of an effective vision-one that is imaginable, desirable, feasible, focused, flexible, and communicable (page 72).

Stage 4: Communicating the Change Vision

Ironically, many change efforts end at stage 4, but in Kotter’s eight-stage process, you are barely halfway there. At this stage, Kotter emphasizes the importance of communicating the vision accurately and thoroughly. He cites examples in which senior executives invest great amounts of time and attention to communicating the change vision, only to find that the message hasn’t permeated through the organization. The key elements of effective communication, according to Kotter, include simplicity, analogy and example, multiple forums, repetition, and two-way communication.

Stage 5: Empowering Employees for Broad-Based Action

The final four phases of Kotter’s eight-stage process for leading change are about
transforming vision into action and action into a new corporate environment where the change vision becomes part of the culture. In the fifth stage, you must remove all barriers that block transformation. In many companies, Kotter has seen employees ready to embrace the new vision, only to be boxed in by numerous obstacles. Those barriers can include lack of training, lack of infrastructure to support the change, or a boss or other employee who discourages action. Kotter advises that any roadblocks must be removed in order for employees to take hold of the change and make it part of their daily lives. When employees have buy-in and are accountable, they participate in the process to ensure its success.

Stage 6: Generating Short-Term Wins

With barriers removed and employees empowered to act, it is time to generate some short-term wins. In the sixth stage of leading change, Kotter asserts that short-term gains keep employees focused so that the organization doesn’t lose sight of the change vision. Change is not always fast, and major change takes time. What employees need during this time of transformation is convincing evidence that their hard work is paying off. Without the promise of short-term wins, enthusiasm and motivation fade. Kotter says short-term wins help fuel momentum and keep the transformation on track.

Stage 7: Consolidating Gains and Producing More Change

During the seventh stage, the change vision process now comes full circle. This is a time for “consolidating gains and producing more change.” During this stage, Kotter says that you overcome the final resistance and maybe even start to celebrate victory. However, Kotter warns that resistance is always waiting to reassert itself. He says that critical ground can be lost because, even at this stage, change is very fragile and hold-outs are waiting for opportunities to make their comeback. Kotter emphasizes that this is a time for more involved leadership, not less, to keep up momentum and accelerate the change vision. Stage seven is also a time for removing unnecessary interdependencies and making way for the transformation to take hold. For example, Kotter explains that Sales, Manufacturing, and R&D are all interconnected; you have to make allowance for those connections and dependencies in your change process if you expect change to take hold.

Stage 8: Anchoring New Approaches in the Culture

The final state is what Kotter calls “anchoring new approaches in the culture.” If you have succeeded in your transformation, you should now realize that the change vision has become part of the culture. Instead of resistance, employees now proclaim that “this is the way we do things here.” When change is anchored in the culture, Kotter says that your change vision has real staying power that permeates the entire organization and becomes part of the culture itself. Kotter closes this chapter with a discussion of company culture and explains that while culture is invisible, it is nonetheless very powerful and very real. “Culture is important because it can powerfully influence human behavior,” Kotter maintains. That’s why your change vision must be anchored in shared values and new norms of behavior (page 148).

Frantic Pace of Change in the 21st Century

Kotter concludes the book with a discussion of the extreme pace of change in a new global economy and how companies and individuals can adapt. He discusses the “habits of the life-long learner,” such as a willingness to take risks and being open to new ideas. He warns against relying upon old paradigms held over from the industrial revolution that still block our ability to grasp new approaches to management and leadership. I agree with Kotter’s conclusion that “people who… embrace the future are a happier lot than those who are clinging to the past” (page 186).


My only misgiving after reading this book is that Kotter does not seem to acknowledge that change doesn’t always have to happen from the top down. With newer and faster modes of communication, change can happen from almost anywhere at any time. Employees who are empowered in their organizations can actually effect change through new ideas and vision just as well as, and perhaps even better than, a CEO or a board of directors. In any case, change rarely just happens, and it is, more often than not, a long and painful journey. I think Kotter’s stages are well founded and can help guide companies through the change process and improve the likelihood of success. The book also helped me realize the differences between dealing with change, managing change, and leading change. It provides real guidance for information-development managers who are now in the process of reinventing themselves as their organizations contract and expand to meet new challenges. CIDMIconNewsletter

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