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Forbes - John Kotter's Change Leadership

Kotter International
January 20, 2016

(Photo by Jeff Topping/Getty Images)

What do the former CEO of Goldman Sachs, President of ESPN and ABC Sports divisions, and the founder of Famous Amos Cookies all have in common? They began their careers in the mailroom.

While I imagine these strong corporate leaders gained incredible expertise, insight and experience along their career journeys, you can bet they weren’t clueless neophytes in the mailroom when they were just getting their start.

A common symptom we see in organizations and industries across the world – particularly those struggling to innovate and stay relevant – is that they place a value judgment on where they believe their next best idea will come. It’s as though innovation is exclusively reserved for the innovate few: 1) senior leaders, 2) personnel in the strategy group, 3) product teams whose day job it is to innovate and 4) external consultants.

Yet, we see a tenfold increase in innovation when all employees are both expected and given the permission to find ways to innovate and improve their organizations every day.

Consider the following situations:

A global pharmaceutical/medical devices corporation was struggling to deliver a product on time due to demand that far outstripped their most optimistic forecasts. While further manufacturing capacity was being built, it simply wouldn’t be fast enough. We convened a cross-functional team from across the globe comprised of sales and marketing experts, supply chain, packaging, compliance and logistics professionals all focused on one singular goal – accelerate the cycle time from manufacturing to product delivery in 90 days or less.

As the team began to struggle with the question of how to shave days off their cycle time, a junior distribution professional from the U.S. shared a frustration. “When we pack and sterilize the pallets to be sent to Europe versus other parts of the world, it takes us at least double the time it does for other geographies. Why is that?” Almost immediately, his German counterpart deflected the unintentional criticism by saying, “And it takes us twice as long to unpack any of the product that we receive from the U.S.”

After about five minutes of discussion the group realized that they were complying with outdated policies that had long governed their global distribution practices. The most junior person on the team identifying a 10% improvement in cycle time was the first of many quick wins. Similar conversations unfolded throughout the team’s two-day launch session and, just 90 days later, the team achieved a 35% improvement in overall cycle time which far exceeded the senior leadership team’s expectations.

Kotter International
December 16, 2015
 Michael Branscom)

Montessori students working on their lessons at Green Hedges School, Vienna, Virginia. (Photo credit: Michael Branscom)

I’ll spare you the perfunctory context setting about how our globalized economy is moving at a rate of change unimaginable even a decade ago. It’s a given. Business models, product cycle times and even the Fortune 500 had a much longer shelf life in the 20th century than they do today.

To remain competitive – or, dare I say, relevant – organizations must achieve vastly higher levels of strategic agility, or face the foul risk of becoming “Blockbustered.” And by strategic agility I mean the ability to tactically pivot at the drop of a hat, to launch novel initiatives and kill off those that are no longer serving you.

At its apex in 2004, Blockbuster Video had nearly 60,000 employees and over 9,000 stores worldwide. Its market value and annual revenues each exceeded $5 billion, and it boasted a #1 position in the space by a long shot. In fact, CEO John Antioco was doing such a stellar job that his compensation that year totaled $51.6 million.

Yet the writing on the proverbial wall had been glaringly apparent for years. New threats and opportunities were ever present. It seemed obvious that Blockbuster’s dinosaur retail business model had to change, but did it have the desire or strategic agility to course correct and reinvent itself?

Rewind the clock to 2000, when Blockbuster turned down a chance to purchase the still struggling Netflix for $50 million. Cue forehead slap. Humming a worn out tune, fingers in ears and blinders securely fastened, it continued ignoring new entrants and technologies – think Redbox and video streaming. Fast forward six short years from its peak in 2004, Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy protection. By 2011, the company and its remaining assets were auctioned off for a paltry $233 million to Dish Network. (Fun fact, Netflix is now worth over $50 billion.)

So what does this story have to do with Montessori and what kindergarteners inherently know about strategic agility? Quite a lot. Hint: if you’re thinking dinosaurs, that’s not it.

Montessori kids are unique. They’re taught differently and they learn differently. Just ask 15 time Grammy Award-winning musician Yo-Yo Ma, author and Nobel Prize recipient Gabriel Garcia Marquez or the founders of Google and Amazon. As entrepreneur Peter Sims explains, “the Montessori educational approach might be the surest route to joining the creative elite, which are so overrepresented by the school’s alumni that one might suspect a Montessori Mafia.”

The vast majority of employees in Corporate America grew up confined by the rigid structures of our conventional education system. We sat in well-organized classrooms comprised of straight lines of desks, with the omniscient teacher positioned front and center. Generally speaking, we had thick textbooks, were required to memorize innumerable factoids, took tests like it was our job and were taught to produce the exact same answers as everyone else. This may be a tad hyperbolic, but you get the picture. Point being, there are clear parallels between traditional organizational structure and culture and traditional educational models. Can you see them? As another example, take a closer look at typical corporate policies and procedures that govern employee behavior. Starting to connect the dots?

Contrast these norms with mixed-aged classrooms and a teaching method where learning is largely self-directed, where children gravitate toward what interests them and where teachers act as coaches and facilitators rather than puppet-masters or dictators.

In Montessori classrooms, learning and teaching is a bilateral process with older children acting as competency models for younger ones and student interests influencing teacher lesson planning. Homework and standardized testing is minimal, and emphasis is placed on personal mastery over benchmarked grades. Children confidently brim with new ideas about challenges to tackle, having learned that failure is acceptable and mistakes are merely learning opportunities.

So some obvious questions arise: How acceptable is failure in your organization? Are all your employees hardwired to seize opportunities, innovate, contribute their best thinking and flex their implementation muscles? Or are they sitting on the sidelines waiting for senior leaders to dole out directives?

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?