Kotter’s eight step model has become an industry standard in the change management world since its release in the 1996 book “Leading Change”. His model received an update in 2014, more closely reflecting current views of reality, but the general principles remain essentially the same.
A Balanced Response
Let me make it clear from the outset that I am not a fan of Kotter’s model. Later in this article I will give you my two strongest objections to it. However, I want this article to be balanced in its approach and I therefore need to acknowledge that most if not all of the eight steps in Kotter’s model should form part of your change management strategy. It is important to create a sense of urgency about change, to build a guiding coalition, to form strategic vision and initiatives, and so forth. I have my doubts about his fourth step “enlist a volunteer army”. Nevertheless, this model is a useful tool to give the change manager direction and structure to the change initiative.
Having established the value of Kotter’s model, let me now turn to my two biggest objections to it. The first objection is that the model does not map well against the change process. Before I go on to explain what I mean by this, let me be clear about a general principle. The general principle is that people will only succeed at change if they have the capacity to succeed at every step of the change process. Too often the focus is on following a change plan or a change management process and people assume that if they follow this change plan they will be successful. But success does not come merely from following a change plan – it comes from succeeding at every step of the change process.
The Change Process
It may seem counter-intuitive, but the change process was surprisingly difficult to understand. By the 1970s, there were over 250 different models of change in the academic literature. These models were an attempt to understand what the change process looks like, and they reflect different viewpoints. Rather than showing a richness of ideas, these models showed a sense of confusion about the change process. Two American academics, Prochaska and DiClemente, spent years looking at these models and conducted a meta-analysis of them. What came out of that analysis was a comprehensive model of change that over the past 32 years has become widely accepted as the definitive model of the change process.
Reflecting the Realities of Change
It is my strong belief that a change management model should reflect the realities of the change process. There are five stages in the change process and Kotter’s model does not offer a balanced approach to this process. At least half of the model’s eight steps refer to just one stage of the change process. One stage of the change process is completely absent in Kotter’s model. And less than half of the model refers to what is arguably the most difficult aspect of any change initiative – actually implementing change and trying to embed it in the organisational culture.
Further on this point, it seems to me that Kotter’s approach is unrealistically optimistic about change. The model presents a “going from strength to strength” view of change, but this view is at odds with what we know about the change process itself. The change process is not about going from strength to strength, but struggling with failure after failure, of giving up and starting all over again. It involves learning and failure. Success is often won only through struggle (thankfully, it’s not always that grim). Change fails most of the time because people lack the capacity to keep going when things get tough, when they get discouraged, and when they have had enough. This capacity is what change fitness and change readiness are all about. The struggle is clearly reflected in the change process, but it is not reflected at all in Kotter’s model.
I will now turn my attention to my second objection to Kotter’s model. I believe the model would only work well if the organisation and its people were already ready for change. It’s all very well to talk about a guiding coalition and a volunteer army, but if the people who form that coalition and army are low in change fitness, they are never going to be an asset to you. They will create more problems than they solve. And instituting change, or embedding it in organisational culture, is never going to work if that culture is toxic to the change. Everything can look rosy at the ‘go live’ date, but the change can soon look very wilted if the culture is pitted against it.
Kotter’s model seems to assume the organisation has high levels of change readiness, but in reality this is a very unrealistic assumption to make. For example, a 2015 report by Optus found that only 23% of Australian businesses are ready for change. Actually, I’m surprised it is that high, but it does make me wonder about those statistics. According to Kotter about 70% of organisational change efforts fail, and according to Optus about 70% of Australian businesses are not ready for change. I’m not claiming those statistics have a causal relationship, but it is an interesting observation.
So those are my two main objections to Kotter’s model, but what solutions can I offer? My solution is that the primary thing you should do is to work with change readiness. Kotter’s model is fine, but only if the organisation is ready for change. The best time to start making your organisation ready for change is yesterday. If you don’t do it, or you see it as an unnecessary cost, you will spend a lot more money in the future than you need to and be less competitive at the same time.
An Urgent Priority
At The Change Gym, we believe the best place to start with change is not by creating a sense of urgency, but by making your change capacity an urgent priority. Let your plans and strategies reflect what you are good at with change, and make it stronger in places where you are weaker.
Knowing the change fitness of your people will help you select the most change-fit people to be part of your guiding coalition. Knowing the change strengths and weaknesses of your team will help you know how to structure your strategic vision and initiatives because you will be aware of the strengths you have to work with and the risks inherent in your change readiness weaknesses. Building your change readiness will help you remove barriers and lower resistance. And creating a change ready culture will enable your change to embed in a culture that nurtures and supports it.
If you would like help to build and/or audit your change readiness, please talk to us. We are experts in this emerging field and have many tools and programs that can help make your organisation more change efficient, and your change more successful. Please check out our website for more information or contact us directly.
Dr Steve Barlow
The Change Gym