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Forbes - John Kotter's Change Leadership

Kotter International
November 13, 2015

Many years ago, I was leading a small group of analysts in a U.S. government agency to produce a Congressionally-mandated report. My team worked tirelessly to obtain and analyze complex, national data and then produce the information in a way that was actionable by national, state and local governments.

We had a deadline by which the report had to be delivered to Congress but we faced many barriers along the way. Some other agencies from which we needed to gather data were slow to share. Reviewers whose sign-off we needed were too busy and refused to delegate the task. The printing office had higher priority projects ahead of ours.

We faced each barrier and overcame it, often through heroic action from members of my team. The due date arrived. We had an hour to go before copies of the report were due on Capitol Hill. But where were the reports?

We tracked them down to the truck outside our building, which couldn’t get to the loading dock – full because it was lunchtime and other truckers, also delivering to our building, had stopped in for lunch in our cafeteria.

Now I was stumped (and very frustrated!). Fortunately, I bumped into a middle manager I knew from a different agency. He heard my dilemma and immediately turned on his heel, went into the giant, noisy cafeteria, stood on top of a table, shouted for everyone’s attention and asked any truck drivers there who had finished lunch to please move their trucks out of the loading dock. Two jumped up.

Needless to say, the report was delivered on time.

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Why in the world would I tell this story?

It illustrates what each of us knows at heart: in every kind of organization, leaders at all levels are needed to overcome barriers and reach our goals, and they can come from anywhere.

The barriers will be different in government agencies than in hospitals. They will be different in schools than in high-tech start-ups. Engineers will face different challenges than administrators. Bank and retail store managers will have different opportunities to meet the needs of different kinds of customers.

Sometimes it’s easy to demonize people in different types of organizations or roles than our own. From the outside, it looks like they “should” or “could” be more effective. That’s when it helps to remember the barriers you face in your own role and within your own organization.

So the next time you run into a barrier to accomplishing your goal, look for leaders, no matter their level or background, who will help.

Would you climb on top of the table and shout out what is needed?

Kotter International
September 17, 2015

As I write this, there are hundreds – if not thousands – of organizations in the United States alone moving predictably down a life cycle path. They start out fast and agile. Initially, they organize more as a network than as a hierarchy. They demonstrate a clear sense of urgency around a big opportunity, and many of their employees provide, in one way or another, some leadership on initiatives to achieve that opportunity.

Today, they are systematically – and obliviously – marching away from this dynamic because they are taking care of business and not watching what’s happening to them. They are marching towards a reliable and efficient hierarchy with systemic planning, budgeting, staffing, measurement, compensation, problem solving, and other systems. All sorts of forces move them down this path. Not the least of which is the fear that if they cannot operate reliably and efficiently, they will have terrible problems in the near future. But for the vast majority of enterprises, this pattern is not good news.

What happens almost all of the time in the life cycle march? At a certain point, innovation goes down, down and down. As a result, growth slows. But, if you have enough market share, proprietary technology, a big enough brand name and anything that can stifle the competition, you can continue to make money and convince yourself that all is well.

Sooner or later though, our fast-moving world demands strategic agility and speed, and you no longer have it. Growth of stock price flattens. Creative talent leaves, if they didn’t already go a decade or two ago. And you become just one more large organization that has had a very successful past and may be moving to a GM future. This is happening everywhere, including Silicon Valley, and no one gains from it — not investors, employees, customers or countries.

Great Opportunity Ahead

What to do? Let’s start with what not to do.

  1. For young organizations, don’t rag on about your innovative culture and how that’s going to protect and save you. It won’t. The relentless life cycle that turns your organization into a reliable, efficient bureaucratic organization designed to meet today’s commitments will crush your innovative culture.
  2. A variation on the last point: don’t relentlessly fight intelligent bureaucracy as you grow. You’re going to need some rules at a certain point. You’re going to need organization charts, planning systems and systemic methods for hiring large numbers of the right kinds of people each year. Fighting this in the name of staying entrepreneurial eventually leads to chaos, unmet promises, collapsing stock price and the like.
  3. Or, related to the last point, if yours is a mature organization, don’t jettison all the systems and structures that get the work done reliably and efficiently and replace them with a spider organization, a startup network, a horoscopy or whatever. You need an intelligent management driven hierarchy and processes to get the work done each day. The problem is not that an intelligent managerial system is bad. It’s just insufficient.


What to do?

  1. If yours is a young organization, let the flow flow, but pay great attention to what is happening. You will naturally pass through a stage where you still have the entrepreneurial-like network and leadership coupled with the growing hierarchy and management systems. I call it a dual operating system. The trick is to lock in this dual system that generates both speed/agility and reliability/efficiency. Lock-in here means to help everyone know this is the way you want to run the business because it will be a big winner, because it will keep you young at heart, even as new demands of adulthood come at you and must be met. It means developing explicit processes that become habits. It means consistently helping your people make this happen despite the natural tendency for a growing managerial hierarchy to quash an entrepreneurial network. It means leaders communicating early and often about the dual system, and making it work.
  2. If you are already long past the dual systems stage and are dominated by a single system hierarchy, then recreate it. This is possible again because I’ve seen it happen (and written about it in my last book Accelerate). It is somewhat like going back to the future: building a structure and way of operating that you had briefly in the past – an entrepreneurial network and a management driven hierarchy working together hand in glove – but in a way that makes sense for the future given your vastly increased size and complexity. This means a larger network of entrepreneurs than you had in the past. This means explicit attention to teaching everyone how you are going to operate: a dual system. This means more formal entrepreneurs processes than you had when you were small, processes that maintain a sense of urgency around big opportunities, allowing people to pour their passion into strategic initiatives on the network side, celebrating initiative wins and institutionalizing new winning changes back into the management hierarchy core of the business. No, it’s not easy, but it is possible. It’s sort of like remaining a responsible adult, but rebuilding some of the inquisitive, energetic, spontaneous and optimistic qualities you may have had in your youth.

At a time in which very few organizations either see or are seriously trying to deal with these issues in the right way, vast opportunities exist for those who do understand the problems and solutions. And these opportunities will only grow in a world that is moving relentlessly faster and in more unpredictable ways.

Kotter International
August 31, 2015

In response to an argument McKinsey made for why leadership development programs fail, we made two cases for how they succeed: when they set and communicate realistic expectations [Part 1], and when they are built on solid, empirical research foundations [Part 2]. Going beyond the debate on why programs succeed or fail, I’d like to share some bold ways to implement effective leadership development programs.

We have worked with and observed organizations that are creating real, far-reaching changes in how leadership development participants apply what they have learned on the job. They are fundamentally reshaping the environment in which their learners work and, therefore, redefining the 70 in the 70:20:10 model .

Leadership development professionals clearly know the barriers that block true application of new skills and ideas back on the job. Lack of manager/senior leader support, cultural norms, resistant colleagues, and overwhelming job demands all get in the way of lasting behavior change.  Many of these revolve around the job context in which participants are expected to try new things.  And aside from application projects defined for participants as a part of a program, it seems that little can be done to fundamentally reshape the entire environment in which participants are trying to apply new tools and lessons.

However, we have seen companies reshape this environment.  Three elements to achieving it are critical.

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1. Capitalizing On Immediate, Energizing Opportunities To Contribute

Imagine if, within a couple of days after participating in a leadership program, a middle manager is approached by a colleague and invited to be a part of a new project. The project taps into aspects of the business she is most excited about, has the direct support of a top executive, and enables her to make strong contributions with minimal demands on her time.

One large U.S. professional association engulfed its leadership development program participants in these kinds of opportunities. It deployed proactive invitations to help, multiple peer-driven projects for participants to choose from, and a drum-beat of communication that continuously fueled action. The consistent “pull” of energized colleagues, cross-organizational focus of the work, and executive exposure all directly evoked specific skills that participants just learned.