Change Management: Kotter’s 8 Step Change Model

by Desh

Kotter’s 8 Step Change Model is a great way to herald change in your organization.

Change Management in an organization is probably the toughest challenge for any project leader.  Every project, large or small brings in change in the way things are done.  These changes introduce challenges of acceptance and adoption for the business and IT users alike.

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John Kotter revealed an 8 Step Change Model in his book “Leading Change”.

Importance of Change Management

Numerous studies have shown that between 60-70% of all change management projects fail – McKinsey and Company, IBM, Harvard Business Review, Forbes/Towers Watson, and Connor Partners.

Reasons why Change Management fails

The main reasons behind the failure in change management are:

  • Gap – When the leadership and the top management fails to translate and communicate its vision for the company and how the project helps achieve that vision (Please read – How Can a Strategically Aligned PMO Increase Shareholder Value ) then there is a gap between the project stakeholders and the leadership vision.  When proper change management tools and frameworks are not used to mitigate the gap, the projects fail.
  • Resistance – When the way of working and processes change, it introduces hardship and people are wont to resist such situations.  Sometimes this resistance is overt but sometimes it is covert and hidden.  It is visible in the ways that users stall the progress of an initiative or project deliverable.  Classic Project Management discipline and proper change management methodologies are needed to address these scenarios.
  • Impact – One of the things that every implementation team needs to do is assess the cost of failure of an initiative / project.  Specially on the business community.  This helps to explain the urgency and the criticality of a project’s success.
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So many projects do not take change management imperatives seriously.  That is where Kotter’s change model comes in.  And, this failure – which involves soft issues compared to the hard technical challenges – takes a huge toll on time and money.

What is Kotter’s 8 Step Change Model

kotter's 8 step change model Change Management: Kotter’s 8 Step Change Model Who wants change

Kotter’s approach involves preparing the organization for accepting and then championing the change itself.  Kotter therefore suggests that a successful initiative should enlist support of at least 75% of the user community wanting change for it to create the right critical mass.  Here are the 8 steps to Change Management and the high level descriptions and the activities involved.

This animation helps explain Kotter’s model very effectively.  Please do check it out before we deep dive into each of those 8 steps.

Now let us look at all the 8 steps.

Kotter’s 8 steps

The 8 steps can be seen as a progressive model where each step is necessary to go to the next one.  And more than one steps combine to take the organizations towards a certain direction and create appreciate and ground-work for change.

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Kotter’s 8 step Change Model


Creating a Sense of Urgency

This is when the raison d’etre for the whole project is debated and discussed and evangelized by the top leadership.  It involves looking at outside competition and the challenges at hand.

To bring in sustained and last change, everyone should be on board with the need to usher in the change in the first place.  This should involve an honest dialog and discussion with the company.  The more the discussions around what the leadership proposes along with analytical backup, the more people will see the urgency for the change.  To help this along, the following can be done:

  • Do a SWOT analysis for the company and the area which needs the change.
  • Build scenarios that show different assumptions and outcomes for the future.  This helps everyone visualize where one is going given the choices now.
  • Bring in different stakeholders in an honest and extensive forum.  These stakeholders can include customers, industry experts, and vendors.  If the change is needed, then they can help bolster the argument and build a sense of urgency.
  • Use internal social media options like Yammer to create a discussion forum where people can exchange ideas and debate the need for change and the options available.

This is an important step and shouldn’t be taken lightly.  If the correct level of urgency is felt by all, the change can be brought in much easily.

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Also Read: How to Manage Business User Expectations and Lack of Knowledge During a New System Implementation

Create the Guiding Coalition

Once the required urgency is created, it is now important to find the right leadership to direct the energies of the company and the group for bringing in the change.  This involves identifying good and great change leaders.

“People who appear to be resisting change may simply be the victim of bad habits. Habit, like gravity, never takes a day off.” ― Paul Gibbons, The Science of Successful Organizational Change: How Leaders Set Strategy, Change Behavior and Create an Agile Culture   
Leaders are not always born.  For most of the corporate history, good and great leaders were built and nurtured.  So, identify smart people with an energy so they can be trained and provided experience to take on the leadership mantle.

We need to build a coalition of change in this step.  So bring in all types of influencers who can wield soft and hard power.  Not just folks who have power based on their position in the company but also those whose expertise gives them an inherent power – as well as others who have informal ways to influence others.

Few things need to be done in this step –

  • Form the coalition and institute ways that they can function well.
  • Create an emotional commitment and bonding of the team and within the team to the overall goal.
  • Do team-building exercises and ways to ensure that the team is bonded.
  • Analyze your team and identify its strengths and weaknesses early.  In areas the team is weak, we should bolster those areas ASAP.

This coalition will become the ultimate vehicle to not just translate the restlessness that the urgency creates to fruition but also do it in the most efficient and effective way.

Develop a Change Vision and Strategy


Every change initiative needs to be rooted in the overall vision of the company as a whole.  We cannot be moving towards a nimble and flexible organization but have methodologies for managing projects that are not Agile-based.  For quicker response and delivery, adopting methodologies and frameworks like Agile becomes imperative.

The top leadership should, therefore, clearly lay down the vision.  once it has done so, then it needs to be articulated and shared.

These are some of the things that need to be done in this step:

  • Determine the central values of the change initiative.
  • Create a short “elevator” pitch for the future vision.
  • Create a strategy for the company that dovetails into that vision.
  • Share the vision and strategy with the coalition we have built in the last step.  Make sure that they can articulate it in 5 minutes or less.
  • Practice this elevator pitch as often as you can to make it work effortlessly

When the initiative is started, there are a lot of ideas and thoughts as well as questions floating around in the organization.  We need to anticipate and pre-empt them as well as address them in the right way.  A properly laid out vision distills all that into a single direction forward.

Communicate the Change Vision


When things start in any initiative, cross-talk and counter-ideas start flowing as well.  So, just creating the vision and articulating it, in the beginning, is not enough.  It has to be a continuous process.  So it should be communicated frequently and powerfully and should be added to every process.

It should be shared formally and informally at every step.  People should walk the talk.  The steps should be taken to align the initiative in every way with the central tenets and values of the vision statement.  So what does this entail?  These things:

  • Discuss the vision often and everywhere
  • Identify and address people’s concerns and misgivings in an open and honest way
  • Tie everything to the vision statement.  Apply the vision to everything, whether it is the training or performance reviews and make sure the results from all that tie back into the vision in the end.

Vision or the work in any initiative cannot be done in a vacuum.  There is no use having a vision that cannot be translated into action.  And there is little usefulness of doing action that is divorced from the vision.

Empower Broad-Based Action


For any change to succeed, it needs to be broad-based and that means the resistance to it needs to be worked at.

“No vision is worth the paper it’s printed on unless it is communicated constantly and reinforced with rewards.”  ― Jack Welch, “Winning”
We need to create structural measures that ensure any resistance or barriers to the change initiative are identified early and addressed.  This helps the change to move on and become broad-based.

Here are some of the things that can be done:

  • Bring together leaders – hire or train – who can effect change.  They should be strong enough to deliver on the change that is needed.
  • Align organizational structure, job descriptions, and performance and compensation systems with your vision.
  • Reward and recognize your main contributors and leaders.
  • Identify the people who are resisting change overtly or covertly and engage with them.  Find out what is creating resistance and help them through the whole transition.
  • Remove all kinds of barriers for the users and the project team

By removing all obstacles you can make this into a broad-based movement.

Generate Short Term Wins


Nothing succeeds like success – goes the saying.  And that is true.  No one can live merely on the hope of final glories that may come one day.   Short term wins (organizational improvements that can be implemented in 6 to 18 months) ensure that people see their daily efforts are moving the organization in a particular direction.  There are three important criteria that a short term win must meet:

  • Its success must be unambiguous.
  • It must be visible throughout the organization.
  • It must be clearly related to the change effort

The most important thing is that people should agree that the short term win is actually a win.

Every initiative has a lot of skeptics and short term wins helps in pulling these skeptics over to the coalition that we have built for the change initiative.  These wins need to be publicized, promoted and praised at various levels for its impact to be effective.   These are the things that need to be done for creating the short term wins:

  • Look for the low-hanging fruits that can be implemented without any intervention or help from those who are sharply against the change.
  • These short term targets should not be expensive ones.  Smaller targets and sub-projects that can be completed early and successfully should be lined up in the earlier milestones.
  • Make sure you have carefully planned and also done the groundwork for these smaller efforts to succeed.  If these fail, then it can create a profound negative impact on the whole initiative!
  • Reward, reward and reward those who make the change initiative look good!

One must remember that these short term wins are not the reason for working on or taking up the entire initiative.  But they are critical for the overall success.  They are mere “rest places” if you will.  Celebrate and move on to bigger and better things!!

Consolidate Gains and Implement More Change


Many projects do not succeed because they are treated as short-distance sprints as opposed to long-distance marathons, which many are.  It is not just about one project really.  It is about the whole culture and the series of change and project initiatives that are being and will be taken up in the organization.  To prepare the company for that.

Once the change has been communicated and initiated with the short term wins, it is time to consolidate the change in the DNA of the organization.  It is one thing to introduce a new product successfully.  It takes quite another type of organization to keep doing it for a long time.

To consolidate the change, here is what needs to be done:

  • Review every win – however small it may be.  Analyze what went right and what went wrong and how can things be improved.
  • Set clear goals for cascading sub-initiatives.  Let one feed into another and create a culture of success.
  • Kaizen – the process for continuous change and improvement can be used very effectively here for building on the change you want to bring to the organization.
  • Energize your change coalition by bringing in new ideas, leaders and team members.  This can help reinvigorate the whole team!

Change is not an event.  It is a habit.  It takes time and effort over a long period of time.

Anchor Change in Culture


An organization’s culture determines what works and what doesn’t.  If the vision and its components have not seeped into your organization’s deep culture then it will not be successfully implemented.

Let the change imperatives along with the habit of succeeding with the new culture be part of the core of your organization.

“Strategy has no value if your culture and leadership mindset are wrong”  ― Tony Dovale
At this stage, your values, which are aligned to the new vision of the company should take over.  This is the time when the entire leadership should be onboard with the change.  There can be no ambiguity in the top and middle management at the very least, for the change.

What all needs to be done for anchoring the change permanently?  Here are some of the things.

  • Make your success and work into a legend.  Create success stories and share them everywhere so people see the use and benefit.
  • The values and ideals which have made the change successful should be incorporated in every sphere – whether it is hiring or training.  That is the way to enshrine it in everyone’s mind for the future.
  • Promote, Praise and publicize the team members of the change coalition who have made the initiative a success.
  • Create a succession plan for the leadership as it moves on to other things.  New blood should be introduced and readied for leading the change.

Being a one-time success and a long term success are two different things.  It takes a lot more effort to create a permanent change in your organization.

Change is not Easy

Change is never easy.  Not for an individual and certainly not for an organization.  These days so many organizations are almost the size of small economies – in revenues and some even in the number of people.  When this is so, it takes a lot of effort to turnaround the place for accepting change in processes and doing things.  But without that nothing can be accomplished.  One company I have personally admired in terms of heralding and instituting change is IBM.  What started out as a calculator company, became the Mainframe powerhouse to consumer computers and products giant.  When it realized – and very early in the game – that the future of computers and consumer machines is limited, it changed all the way to a services company by acquiring PricewaterhouseCoopers.  And then it became a service leader.  And all through it was a company of 200-300,000 people.  That is no joke.  One of the things that it always succeeded in was communication with the employees who were part of the change.  The employees were brought on board first.  And that has made all the difference!

So, if you want to change to be part of your organization’s DNA so that it is nimble and flexible, even when large, the best way is to institutionalize change using principles of Kotter’s 8 Step change model.


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