Book Review – Leading Change By John P Kotter

 

Leading Change by John KotterIntroduction

In 1994 John Kotter wrote an article for Harvard Business Review titled, Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail. The article became one of the most popular ones written for the journal. Kotter later extended the ideas expounded in the article in a book titled, Leading Change, published in 1996. This is the updated and second version of that book. Kotter who has written other books on change and is considered to be one of the top thinkers in the world on the subject has said that this book is not like any of his previous ones. In his own words, “Unlike my previous books, leading change is not filled with footnotes and endnotes. I have neither drawn examples or major ideas from any published source except my own writing nor tried to cite evidence from other sources to bolster my conclusions .” The book deals with two key issues around change. Firstly it highlights eight reasons why change initiatives fail, and then it outlines an eight-stage process on what it requires to manage change successfully.

Why should learning practitioners be cognizant about change management? The truth is most of what we do is really about supporting successful change. Understanding the barriers to successful change management and knowing what we can do to promote change successfully will make the difference in how we implement learning projects. Expertise in learning and development is not enough, we also need to become adept at leadership if we are to really influence our organisations, and leading change is one of the leadership aspects that we need to really master.

This is not a big book, but with stories and clear, jargon-free language and a simple framework, Kotter puts his points across in a discernible way. The structure of the book is outlined below:

  • A table of contents
  • New preface by the author
  • Another preface (probably from the previous version)
  • 12 chapters
  • A bit about the author.

The book has just 196 pages and is divided into three distinct parts:

  1. Part one – The Change Problem and Its solution has 2 chapters
  2. Part two – The Eight-Stage Process has 8 chapters
  3. Part three – Implications for the Twenty-First Century has 2 chapters

Following is a brief review of each chapter.

Chapter One – Transforming Organizations: Why Firms Fail: This is a very useful chapter which summarizes right reasons why change initiatives fail. The eight reasons are:

  1. Allowing too much complacency
  2. Failing to create a sufficiently powerful guiding coalition
  3. Underestimating the power of vision
  4. Under communicating the vision by a factor of 10 (or 100 or even 1000)
  5. Permitting obstacles to block the new vision
  6. Failing to create short-term wins
  7. Declaring victory too soon
  8. Neglecting to anchor changes firmly in the corporate culture

Chapter Two – Successful Change and The Force That Drives It: This is a short chapter which summarizes an eight-stage process for creating major change. The next eight chapters are dedicated to the eight-stage process with a chapter dealing with each of the stages. Some other important topics are discussed in this chapter, such as the globalization of markets and competition which is a major force accelerating change in all sectors and management versus leadership.

Chapter Three – Establishing a Sense of Urgency: This is the first step of the eight-stage process. Kotter believes that for any change programme to succeed there must be a sense of urgency in the organisation that ensures needed cooperation is gained. If complacency is high, a change project has little hope of succeeding because people will not see the reason for a change and hence not support it. The chapter discusses sources of complacency and then highlights ways to push up urgency levels.

Chapter Four – Creating the Guiding Coalition: The second step in the eight-stage process is all about garnering a team of powerful and influential people to support the change and push it through. According to Kotter, “because major change is so difficult to accomplish, a powerful force is required to sustain the process…….A strong guiding coalition is always needed – one with the right composition, level of trust and shared objective.” Putting together a strong coalition is discussed.

Chapter Five – Developing a Vision and Strategy: Vision is almost always associated with leadership and as Kotter implies in this chapter, a clear and easy to understand vision which is communicated effectively is essential to any change initiative. Why vision is essential, the nature of an effective vision and creating the vision are topics dealt with. Rather interesting are the example of effective and ineffective visions illustrated in the chapter.

Chapter Six – Communicating the Change Vision: Kotter starts the chapter with this statement: A great vision can serve a useful purpose even if it is understood by just a few people. But the real power of vision is unleashed only when most of those involved in an enterprise or activity have a common understanding of its goals and directions. In other words if most people in an organisation don’t know and understand the vision it will have limited impact. Kotter offers some ways to communicate a vision effectively such as keeping it simple, using metaphors, analogies and examples, using many different forums, repeating and leading by example.

Chapter Seven – Empowering Employees for Broad-Based Action: The premise of this chapter is simple, if employees do not feel empowered to act they will not support change initiatives adequately.  Removing structural barriers, aligning organisational systems to the vision and dealing with troublesome managers are ways discussed to help empower employees.

Chapter Eight – Generate Short-Term Wins: Projects typically take long to complete and the length sometimes can make people feel weary and discouraged. Short-term wins can mean that before the whole project is completed there is noticeable success which can serve as a motivator and proof  that the project is on the right path. This chapter looks at the usefulness of short-term wins, nature of short-term wins and role of short-term wins among other topics. The aim of the chapter is to highlight how short-term wins can have positive effects on change programmes.

Chapter Nine – Consolidating Gains and Producing More Change: While short-term wins can be a morale booster within a longer term change programme, celebrating short-term wins can cause the level of urgency to drop which will have a negative impact on the change programme, although this is not the intention. Short-term wins should increase credibility of the guiding coalition and that credibility should be used to bring in more change by changing systems, structures and policies that align with the change process, bringing people on board who can further  promote  the change and using new themes, projects and people to give the change more momentum. That is what this chapter discusses.

Chapter Ten – Anchoring New Approaches In Culture: Change programmes can’t be successful where the prevailing culture does not support it. For change to happen new practices can’t be grafted onto old culture, rather new practices need to replace old practices thereby changing the culture and making sure the change is embedded. This chapter emphasizes the importance of culture and why it is important for culture change to come first when implementing change programmes.

Chapter Eleven – The Organization of The Future: The organization in today’s world is one that faces unprecedented and rapid change. As such 21st century organizations can’t operate with 20th century mindsets. Kotter offers some ideas about what the 21st century organization should look like. Some of the features of the 21st century organization he outlines are:

  • Having a persistent sense of urgency
  • Teamwork at the top being essential
  • Availability of people who can create and communicate vision
  • Environment of empowerment
  • An adaptive corporate culture

Chapter Twelve – Leadership and Lifelong Learning: This is the final chapter which is an appropriate ending for the book. Kotter uses three examples to illustrate leaders who grew and became better through lifelong learning. He argues that successful leaders are those who never stop learning and growing. Ultimately he believes that these are the types of leaders needed to run organizations operating in the kind of environment that 21st century organizations now face.

I must confess that before this I had never read a book on change management, but I thoroughly enjoyed this one. The writer no doubt has spent many years observing change and leadership in organizations and writes from the depths of his experience not some desktop research. Kotter’s writing has a nice flow to it and is largely jargon free with no complex change models that require one to consult the encyclopedia of business models. The short stories littered throughout the book make a serious subject palatable and I think the size of the book is just about right. Two key learning points stood out for me from the book and they are:

  1. The eight reasons why change initiatives fail
  2. The eight-stage process (to make change succeed)

 

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