Kotter’s Eight Step Change Model

Who’s Equation is it?

John Kotter’s works have made his name synonymous with leading change. Kotter, a Harvard Business School Emeritus Professor, speaker, and author, has committed much to studying leadership and change over the years. His 8-step model is taught in all the leading business schools and is practically a religion among some of the big consultancies.
Kotter is the author of 20 books on leadership and change. Twelve have been business bestsellers, and two were overall New York Times bestsellers.

Kotter’s Eight Step Change Model

When researching his change process, Kotter studied over 100 companies that were going through some significant change. As a result, his research identified eight common errors that were made during change programs. In order, they are:

  1. Allowing too much complacency. Anyone who has been around projects for a while will be familiar with the phrase ‘projects go wrong one day at a time.’ However, Kotter found that it was common for organizations to assume problems could be assessed and dealt with at a later date.
  2. Failing to build a substantial Coalition. It is common for change programs to have their detractors. But when these are not managed effectively, they are likely to scupper the initiative.
  3. Underestimating the need for a clear vision. Lewis Carroll once pithily noted, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” Unfortunately, the reality is worse than that. Kotter noted that without a clear vision of the desired result, change initiatives could end up leading nowhere.
  4. Failing to communicate the vision clearly. It may be the case that your management team has a clear vision of the end result. They may even have a good idea of how to get there. But if the picture is not shared by all those involved in realizing it, it is unlikely to be achieved.
  5. Permitting Roadblocks against the vision. For example, if legacy structures or processes remain in place, this can be interpreted as a poor commitment to the project.
  6. Not planning and getting short-term wins. Change programs can be lengthy and require continuous reinforcement of the belief that the effort will be successful. Without ‘quick-wins’ change efforts, risk looking for traction and support.
  7. Declaring victory too soon. Celebrating short-term goals is a good thing, but the change program is not over until the changes are embedded in the culture and systems of the organization.
  8. Not anchoring changes in corporate culture. Change sticks only when it becomes The way we do things around here.’

To mitigate these common errors, Kotter advocated an 8-step model as follows:

  1. Establish a sense of Urgency
  2. Create a Coalition
  3. Develop a Clear Vision
  4. Share the vision
  5. Empower people to clear obstacles
  6. Secure short-term wins
  7. Consolidate and keep moving
  8. Anchor

However, he reviewed and refined the model in 2014 and released a new version, shown in the diagram below:

Kotter 8 step model 2014 1
The updated version of Kotter’s model resolves one of the major criticisms of the 1996 model. The original was a sequential model that followed a strict waterfall approach. In today’s fast-moving world, it seems absurd that a team should wait for the Vision to be shared with the whole organization before moving on to empower people and start thinking about quick wins.

In the 2014 update, Kotter advocates running the 8-steps concurrently and continuously, and the model is flexible enough for even the most flexible organizational structures. Continuing to refer to the eight focus areas as ‘steps’ feels like a missed opportunity to reinforce the need for continuous improvement. Steps is a very waterfall term. But, that criticism aside, the new model has much going for it. So let’s take a look at the steps in more detail:

  1. Create a sense of urgency. Identify what it is you want to do. Leaders must describe an opportunity that will appeal to the heads and hearts. For change to succeed, this needs to be inspiring to the people working to make the change a reality.
  2. Build a Guiding Coalition. Kotter advises pulling together a volunteer team of influential people from within the organization who can guide, coordinate and communicate change activities.
  3. Form a Strategic Vision and Initiatives. Define the vision for the future and the activities that will make that vision a reality.
  4. Enlist a Volunteer Army . Your coalition is guiding, but to make change happen requires an army. To be successful, you’ll need a sizable body of employees excited about the change and able to take action to deliver the outcomes.
  5. Enable Action by Removing Barriers. Those familiar with Scrum may recognize this from the role of the ScrumMaster. The principle here is the same. You create the environment needed to support your change initiative by removing barriers such as inefficient processes or legacy structures.
  6. Generate Short-Term Wins. Big wins can take time to deliver. Look for opportunities to provide short-term wins that can energize your teams to drive the change forwards. Crucially, the small changes need to be aligned with the vision so people can see the direction the organization is moving in.
  7. Sustain Acceleration. The goal is to build up speed and then maintain it. You must build organizational stamina and strong change leadership to do this.
  8. Institute Change. As noted earlier in this article, it is crucial to make the change stick. It needs to become ‘the way we do things around here.’ Kotter advocates building and communicating the links between the behaviors valued in the changed organization and the organization’s success.

When to use Kotter’s Eight Step Change Model

The 8-step model is suitable for any significant change initiative. By applying the step model to large-scale change, digital transformation, or organizational change initiatives, change leaders can ensure the proper foundations for managing change are in place. But it can be applied to small initiatives and short term goals as well. Indeed, any new change can be reviewed against the 8 step model, to validate there is a clear change vision, and to confirm potential threats have been considered. For PMO professionals, the model is ideal for setting up the PMO from scratch or turning around a failing PMO.
You may also advocate this approach on significant change projects or transformations within your organization or supply chain.

How to use the 8-step change model

These tips will help you get the most out of John Kotter’s change management model.

Further Reading

*Note, these links relate to the original 8-step model, not the 2014 update.

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