For our fourth and final Emphatically Recommended Reading™, we turn to leadership—an area of primary importance to the Leading Learning Symposium—and John Kotter’s classic Leading Change.
The book was originally published in 1996, but what Kotter offers remains relevant. He remarks early on in Leading Change:
The change problem inside organizations would become less worrisome if the business environment would soon stabilize or at least slow down. But most credible evidence suggests the opposite: that the rate of environmental movement will increase and that the pressures on organizations to transform themselves will grow over the next few decades.
The last 20 years have proven Kotter exactly right in general and in the specific context of the market for lifelong learning, which has shifted dramatically. New technologies have transformed how we work and communicate. Learner expectations are higher than ever. Competition has grown fiercer. The old ways of doing things simply don’t cut it anymore.
We need to change.
An Eight-Stage Process for Major Change and Related Errors
Leading Change the book grew out of “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail,” an article Kotter published in the Harvard Business Review. Both book and article are based on what Kotter learned from observing and working with organizations through change processes.
Change is usually long and hard, but most successful change proceeds through a series of phases—and it’s important to not skip or short-change a phase.
He offers an eight-stage process for creating major change, and each step is associated with a common error organizations make when undertaking transformations.
- Step 1: Establishing a sense of urgency
- Urgency makes it clear that business as usual isn’t sufficient. Often it’s a potential crisis or an actual crisis that precipitates urgency, but pressure to change can also come when you recognize a major opportunity.
- Related error: Allowing too much complacency
- Step 2: Creating the guiding coalition
- Change has to be led (remember the book is called Leading Change). All the executives of an organization are probably not part of the guiding coalition, but the guiding coalition has to be made up of people with enough power to lead the change, and those people have to have a shared goal, so they can work as team.
- Related error: Failing to create a sufficiently powerful guiding coalition
- Step 3: Developing a vision and strategy
- The vision—“a sensible and appealing picture of the future”—is the shared goal that shapes the work of the guiding coalition and that will be spread more broadly. The strategy is the “logic for how the vision can be achieved.” Only after a vision and related strategies are in place do you get down to the nitty-gritty of specific plans, timetables, and budgets.
- Related error: Underestimating the power of vision
- Step 4: Communicating the change vision
- The vision has to be shared—broadly and often—in both words (e-mails, meetings, newsletters, etc.) and in deed (tied to performance reviews, embodied in how executives and managers act, etc.).
- Related error: Undercommunicating the vision by a factor of 10 (or 1,000)
- Step 5: Empowering broad-based action
- The guiding coalition can’t go it alone—they need support throughout the organization to make real change happen. After the vision is shared and understood, individuals throughout the organization need to be able to take actions that are consistent with the vision—but sometimes systems and structures dissuade individuals or make action impossible.
- Related error: Permitting obstacles to block the new vision
- Step 6: Generating short-term wins
- Because change can be a long, hard process, you need to engineer short-term wins—these early successes help build momentum and can help verify the overall change process is on the right track.
- Related error: Failing to create short-term wins
- Step 7: Consolidating gains and producing more change
- Short-term wins are good, but you need to continue on to achieve transformational results. You may need to bring in new change agents and leaders to reinvigorate the process.
- Common error: Declaring victory too soon
- Step 8: Anchoring new approaches in the culture
- For the benefits of the change to remain, the change has to become part of how the organization thinks and acts—it has to become part of the culture. Because culture is amorphous and mostly invisible, this can be tricky to pull off.
- Related error: Neglecting to anchor changes firmly in the corporate culture
If you’re short on time before the symposium, the HBR article will give you a good sense of the errors at the source of many failed change processes, and it touches on better ways to handle change.
If you can make more time, the book will reward your investment with a more detailed and nuanced look at the eight-stage process for change. And we can’t help but highlight the fact that the final chapter in Leading Change is titled “Leadership and Lifelong Learning.”
There at the end of the book Kotter confesses to having been someone who ascribed to the “historically dominant concept that takes leadership skills as a divine gift of birth.” But he’s now convinced—by what he’s observed over decades of studying organizations and the people in them—that leadership can be learned and that lifelong learning is essential to leadership:
In the twenty-first century, I think we will see more of these remarkable leaders who develop their skills through lifelong learning, because that pattern of growth is increasingly being rewarded by a rapidly changing environment. In a static world, we can learn virtually everything we need to know in life by the time we are fifteen…. In an ever changing world, we can never learn it all, even if we keep growing into our nineties, and the development of leadership skills become relevant to an ever increasing number of people.
So, it appears, we all have more learning to do.
Finally, here’s a link back to the main Emphatically Recommended Readings page and the three previous Emphatically Recommended Readings™: