We’ve been discussing the NEED for change a lot lately, and while many of us may understand the urgency, and have even begun undertaking some steps to effectuate change within our firms and organizations, others may be asking what it actually means to be a leader of change.

Fortunately, there are some great resources out there to help guide you through the process. One of these is John P. Kotter’s book, Leading Change, which I was challenged to read a few years ago as part of a leadership conference I participated in. While the book itself was a bit unpalatable – I felt that Kotter could have said more with less, and that his Harvard degree gave him too much license for arrogance – there are some solid suggestions for leading change that can get you started. Let’s distill the more salient points of the book here, and if you’d like to read it in full, I encourage you to pick up a copy of the book for further examples and depth. 

Chapter One: Transforming Organizations: Why Firms Fail

Chapter one is all about the message that change is inevitable (I think we all know that already, right?). But because of this, we need vision, a team, and to be good communicators of the vision. Communication isn’t just about words; as the old saying goes, “actions speak louder than words.” Setting up some of the other chapters, Kotter also explains that we’ll need short term wins, and to anchor changes within our organizations (he’ll tell us how in later chapters).

Chapter Two: Successful Change and the Force that Drives It

Economic and social forces will drive the need for major change – we see this quite clearly today in the ways that we’ve described in previous posts. There is a multistep process that overwhelms inertia. This process MUST be driven by leadership and not management (this theme of leadership versus management is a key one throughout the book).

Sequence is important – in the next eight chapters, Kotter details the steps for leading change (see what I did there?) and doing these steps in order is key. The steps can often be taken in tandem, but you have to be doing all of them, and you have to do them in order to find success (so says Kotter).

Chapter Three: Establishing a Sense of Urgency

The first step in the process is establishing a sense of urgency, or a reason to change. Complacency is hard to fight against, but you have to in order to move change along. Sometimes, it seems that there’s no visible threat, so you have to identify whether you’re really measuring the right things in order to create that true sense of urgency. This isn’t a difficult piece, as you can use the lessons given to us by Altman Weil’s recent survey results as the push you and your colleagues need for greater urgency.

Chapter Four: Creating the Guiding Coalition

The next step is to develop a guiding coalition – this is a team with power, expertise, credibility, and proven leadership. Management is needed here, but leadership is more important.  What you don’t need in this step are single visionaries, egos, bureaucrats, part-time enthusiasts, or equal representation in all department meetings.

Composition is important, as is adaptability. Can you keep this going as the firm moves forward, regardless of who is part of the coalition?

As we mentioned, managers and leaders are important – managers provide plans, while leaders provide vision. Trust is the foundation, and in some cases, it will have to be assumed until it’s proven with action.

You’ll see as part of your push for urgency that there are three groups within the firm – those who are early adopters – they understand right away that there is a need for change and are willing to get on board, those who are more of a wait and see crowd – they aren’t against change, per se, but they want to be convinced that it’s necessary, and those who not only content to stay where they are, but are openly against change. The guiding coalition should be comprised primarily of those in the first group, but also include members of the second group to act as devil’s advocates, who can challenge and ask tough questions as you move forward.

Chapter Five: Developing a Vision and Strategy

The third step is about having an effective vision, which must be imaginable, desirable, feasible, focused, flexible and communicable.  Kotter also emphasizes once again in this chapter the importance of not skipping steps, as it can be tempting to start with the vision.  How may this be applicable for the leaders in your firm?

  • Don’t forget the vision while tending to the details.
  • All stakeholders matter and have a voice.
  • It will be challenging and messy.
  • It will take time.

Chapter Six: Communicating the Change Vision

You’ve got to communicate…correctly. It’s not just about talking; communicating is also about listening. We have to “socialize” change with people in a way that THEY understand. And it takes 10-15 touchpoints to get a message through.

What are the key elements of a message?

  • Keep it simple: don’t use consultant-speak
  • Metaphoric: use metaphors to illustrate
  • Multiple forums: use different channels to reach people
  • Repetitive
  • Lead by example
  • Address inconsistencies
  • Give and take

Chapter Seven: Empowering Employees for Broad-Based Action

Empowerment is really about removing the barriers to change, and that means you need to understand those around you – they’re the only people who will make change.

There are four barriers to change:

  1. Structures (historical organizational structures)
  2. Skills (a lack of)
  3. Systems (the constraints of existing)
  4. Supervisors (troublesome ones and passive aggressive behavior)

To deal with these, ongoing communication is critical. You want to address structural changes and make people part of the process. Training also helps, as does addressing resistant voices proactively (those are the ones in the last group – if you’re not going to force them to change, you also want to make sure that they don’t stand in the way of others changing).

Chapter Eight: Generating Short-Term Wins

We can often get so caught up in the long-term focus on the end goal that we don’t create any short term wins, but these are essential because they help to provide evidence that the sacrifice is worth it. Short term wins rewards change agents, help to fine-tune the vision, undermine any cynics, and keep the bosses on board. Short-terms wins can often be developed with pilot programs within the firm.

Chapter Nine: Consolidating Gains and Producing More Change

Chapter nine examined interdependencies, which illustrated how one change can impact many other things.  That creates a need to purge some of the obstacles that are in the way.  Creating change is a marathon, not a sprint, and in this stage (stage 7), we can actually see MORE change and need more help from the guiding coalition and others. You need leadership from senior management, project management and leadership from below, and a reduction of unnecessary interdependencies.

Chapter Ten: Anchoring New Approaches in the Culture

Ah, culture. A company or firm’s culture is the shared norms/behavior and values that it has. This is something that we have to be cognizant of and stay true to in the face of change. Why is change powerful?

  • It can powerfully influence human behavior
  • It can be difficult
  • Because it’s nearly invisible, it is very hard to directly address

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

There are two types of cultural issues that come into play when change is happening – when new practices are grafted on to old culturse and when new practices replace old cultures.

Importantly though, cultural changes comes LAST – it’s a by-product of other things happening with time.

Chapter Eleven: The Organization of the Future

The organization of the future is all about change (no surprise there):

  • There’s a persistent sense of urgency: change or die
  • Feedback is key: they’re not politically correct
  • Teamwork at the top: no room for Superman
  • Fail forward: there’s a “culture of learning” where everyone has room to try things and adjust, and they understand WHY the end result happened (it’s about recovering well)
  • Developing leaders, not managers
  • Entrepreneurial spirit: empower everyone to contribute

Chapter Twelve: Leadership and Lifelong Learning

In chapter twelve, the final chapter, we “leap” into the future where we need to be risk-takers and embrace change. Embracing change is a powerful force. What that means for us is:

  • Affecting real change for the good of the organization or firm
  • Any discomfort is probably a good thing
  • Need to believe – walk the walk, articulate the plan, demonstrate that we’re on the right path, and avoid any claims of early success

I’m curious to hear from others who have read the book (and anyone who goes ahead and reads it after perusing the above review). Also, two other book recommendations have been made as follow ups to this one:

I’m also going to add in another Hope is Not a Strategy (by Ted Gee) that deals with leadership principles and is well-reviewed on Amazon. Let’s add that to our reading lists too!