Throughout my career as a manager, trainer and a consultant, the tools and models I have found most useful are those that:
- Are easy to remember and apply
- Make sense intellectually and intuitively
- Can be used in a wide range of contexts
- Are underpinned by an understanding of human behaviour and motivation
Models such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Covey’s Circle of Influence are good examples of such models. When it comes to change, and in particular change leadership, John Kotter’s 8 step model for Change Leadership is one of my favourites. Indeed, we have trained hundreds of managers on the model and how to use it. Our Leading Change programme is a workshop that enables managers and leaders to critically apply the most enduring principles of effective change leadership.
Originally first set out in Kotter’s Harvard Business Review article “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail“ in 1995, this 8 step model is probably one of the most well-known and widely used change leadership approach.
Here is a quick summary of Kotter’s 8 Steps with a few of our insights and top tips based on our experience of this approach:
Step 1: Create a Sense of Urgency
Human groups are genetically driven to create stable and safe environments and to protect them. In an organisational setting, this can lead to complacency fuelled by denial of the need for change and reluctance to disrupt safe and stable ways of operating. Often this is backed up by a preoccupation with internal politics rather than external/environmental issues. To tackle this, all change must start with attempts to overcome this by creating a sense of urgency.
Tactics to raise urgency include:
- Exposing employees and managers to external evidence that change is needed.
- Leaders behaving with urgency and role modeling behaviour change.
- Delivering clear and consistent communications at all levels that illustrate the emotional and visceral risks of staying still and not changing.
- Removing unnecessary distractions and routines that are habitual but ineffective or obsolete.
TOP TIP: Don’t underestimate how much time and effort you need to put into developing a sense of urgency. It is not a one off communication exercise but rather a whole new way of thinking and behaving that needs to be consistently demonstrated and role-modeled.
Step 2: Create the Guiding Team
Many change initiatives have project teams but this is different to the idea of having a Guiding Team. Project Teams are responsible for executing and managing tasks and timelines… primarily management tasks. Guiding Teams are responsible for identifying change priorities, building support and overcoming resistance… essentially leadership tasks. This shared leadership and ownership requires guiding team members with:
- Leadership skills (formal and informal)
- A sense of urgency
- A positive connection with the values and core purpose of the organisation
TOP TIP: Don’t fill your Guiding Team exclusively with managers or “the usual suspects” (people who always get nominated for these types of projects). Make sure you have a cross-representation of people from across the organisation who represent the views and feelings of the people who work within it.
Step 3: Develop the Change Vision and Strategy
Often change programmes descend into a confusing set of conflicting sub-projects and jumbled priorities. Failing to have a clear and coherent vision of what the organisation will look like after the change and why anyone should care leaves people frustrated and bemused.
What helps is having a vision for the change that:
- Is clear and easy to explain
- Guides decision making and choices within the organisation
- Links to the overall purpose and values within the organisation
- Is backed up by a solid and understandable strategy
TOP TIP: Beware the dangers of designing a vision by committee! This usually ends with a bland and meaningless statement that tried to be all things to all people. Read our recent blog “Is your mission statement gathering dust on the wall?“ for tips on writing mission / vision statements.
Step 4: Communicate the Change Vision and Strategy
There is no point in developing a great change vision and strategy and then letting it sit in a draw or gather dust in the corner of a boardroom. It needs to be communicated to the organisation. Communication does not mean one Town Hall presentation or a 30-minute PowerPoint to all staff… it means regular conversations at all levels about how you will look and operate after you deliver the change.
Communication of the Change Vision should:
- Make links to other initiatives and projects happening within the organisation.
- Be two-way and rich in discussions, stories and conversations.
- Be role-modeled by leaders across the organisation.
- Involve repetition through multiple channels
TOP TIP: Using visual methods to articulate the vision can be very powerful. Using pictures and images to simplify the change can be very effective in taking groups forward quickly. For practical tips on how to do this, have a look at our Learning Maps page.
Step 5: Remove barriers and empower others to act
Organisations are great at inadvertently and subconsciously creating barriers to people who want to do the right things. Rules, procedures, outdated processes, poor management practice etc. all get in the way of well-intended people acting out the change. The key challenge for leaders is to be alert to these barriers and systematically remove them to clear the way for their staff.
In order to remove these barriers, leaders should:
- Talk to their teams and ask them what impedes or obstructs the change.
- Create and communicate a plan to overcome these obstacles.
- Identify those who are resisting the change because of ignorance or fear and take steps to actively support them.
- Challenge red tape
TOP TIP: Help your employees to understand what the change involves and what it does not. Often employees feel like their whole world is being turned upside down and this can lead to lots of unnecessary resistance. Our blog “What do you do when change feels like end of the world?” gives some practical tips in this area.
Step 6: Create Short-Term Wins
Organisational change is more like a marathon than a sprint. Marathons require persistence and a sense of progress in order to maintain motivation and ultimately to keep going. Implementing change involves hard work and can be very demanding for those involved. Without some indication that things are moving in the right direction and that the change is delivering benefits, it is easy for people to lose heart and revert to old habits. Short-term wins provide this reassurance.
When targeting short-term wins:
- Chose things that are unambiguous and not likely to be perceived as wins by some and loses by others.
- Celebrate your wins and reward those who are embracing the change.
- Plan for your wins well in advance, don’t just expect them to surface on their own.
TOP TIP: Prioritise those things that you can deliver quickly with minimum effort and that have the biggest symbolic impact. Our “Short-term win selection tool” can help you and your team to categorise potential wins and identify your “low-hanging fruit”.
Step 7: Don’t Let Up
It is very easy for complacency to creep back into organisations after months of change work. Human beings get bored, other projects come to the forefront and momentum can stall. In addition, organisational performance management systems tend to run on annual cycles and it is hard to keep a project as a priority for more than one or two of these cycles. However, “declaring victory too soon” is one of the most common reasons for projects and change efforts failing.
In order to keep the momentum rolling and to avoid letting up:
- Think about bringing new people into your guiding team to reenergise it and bring in new ideas.
- Be honest with leaders and sponsors making sure they realise that the change is not completely implemented yet.
- Talk to your guiding team about the natural dip in energy that is common towards the end of large change projects.
- Remind everyone what the vision is and that you are still some way from achieving it.
TOP TIP: Keep your energy up and beware of managers and leaders who are starting to see the short-term wins from step 6 as a sign that they can ease off and divert resources elsewhere. Keep your short-term wins in context and remind your colleagues that they are significant but still small steps to the final destination.
Step 8: Make it Stick
Anyone who has watched TV programmes about people who change their lives such as losing weight or quitting smoking will understand the importance of this step. It is very easy see months or years of hard work implementing change reverse itself in a very short space of time. The organisation might flip back to old ways of working and old behaviours start to creep back in. Making change stick requires persistence and a taking a systemic view of what sustains organisational culture.
Organisations that successfully make change stick:
- Work on all of the factors that drive and sustain behaviours such as reward systems, training, leadership behaviours, the physical work environment, training and recruitment systems etc.
- Understand that change is fragile and can be undermined by key people moving on and build this into handover and talent development plans.
- Work hard to embed change into their culture and realise that change only sticks if it becomes regulated by peer behaviour.
- Are constantly on their guard for anything that can contradict the values and behaviours required by the change.
TOP TIP: Carry out a mini-health check of your organisation to assess your change against all of the factors that will determine its likelihood of “sticking”. Download our “Making Change Stick” tool to help you to do this.
If you would like to discuss how you can use Kotter’s 8 steps of change to drive successful change in your organisation, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on 0191 2404050.