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Forbes - John Kotter's Change Leadership

Kotter International
March 5, 2015

Next year will mark the twentieth anniversary of John Kotter’s guide to change management Leading Change, which introduced his 8-Step Process for Leading Change within an organization. The book was very influential, but since then the pace of change in the business world has sped up greatly. How do those eight steps look today? Kotter updated the process, after extensive research, in his 2014 book Accelerate. The points below illustrate four key revisions he made to his steps for change to make them work in today’s environment.

Leading Change: 8-Step Process (1996)

  • Respond to or affect episodic change in rigid, finite, and sequential (step by step) ways
  • Drive change with a small, powerful core group
  • Function within a traditional hierarchy
  • Focus on doing one new thing very well in a linear fashion over time

Accelerate: 8-Step Process (2014)

  • Run the steps concurrently and continuously
  • Form a large volunteer army from up, down and across the organization to serve as the change engine
  • Function in a network flexibly and agilely outside of, but in conjunction with, a traditional hierarchy
  • Operate as if strategy is a dynamic force by constantly seeking opportunities, identifying initiatives to capitalize on them, and completing them quickly and efficiently




Engaging your volunteer army

What I find particularly compelling is the concept of the volunteer army (the “new” Step 4) because it embodies size, speed, complexity and power in service of change. It is very difficult for an organization to harness these four elements in combination. When it does, large numbers of employees rally under an opportunity, take action and transform their company. For example:

  • In a renowned consumer products company, 2,000 volunteers signed up in six weeks with the purpose of transforming their global supply chain
  • In order to adjust to large shifts in both the competitor landscape and buyers’ buying behaviors, more than 9,000 employees across a national auto re-seller’s 70 locations volunteered to help increase sales
  • When two companies merged to form the largest publishing company in history, their two sales forces, formerly arch competitors, came together in a volunteer army to defeat the enemy of most mergers: failed integration of people and systems
  • A division of a global defense and aerospace giant set out to raise a volunteer army of 350 to seed a growth culture, but the broad appeal of the opportunity attracted 2,300 in only six weeks.


Celebrating the “small” stuff

The generation of short-term wins (Step 6) also remains vital to any large-scale change: wins are the molecules of results. Their influence ranges from cultural to financial. For instance, a broad communication about an achievement is an injection of the positive that activates an optimistic desire in the workforce to do more. Celebrated wins from cost-reduction or revenue-generating efforts openly link specific thinking and behaviors to the bottom and top lines.

What we’ve seen is a doubling down on efforts to define what a win is based on the company’s culture and on their transformation’s objectives. Increased rigor and discipline in collecting, tracking and evaluating wins in significant volume pays off. The prize is any unassailable correlation between a win – or body of like wins – and a business result. The bonus can be bigger than the win itself. Some wins, when detailed and celebrated, can go viral and expand their impact by creating copycats.

Kotter International
December 22, 2014

“H” is a magic letter. Yes, three is a magic number. Today, we are all about the “H,” no numbers. Sound familiar?

My younger daughter is at the age where weekly spelling lists and quizzes are part of her routine, with 20 words every week. She gets them on Monday, she learns them during the week and she rocks her quiz on Friday. As English is a complex language, with rules and sounds mish-mashed from everywhere around the world, some words and sounds are harder for her to learn to spell than others. So, we go with pneumatic devices and tricks to help make sense of it all: “Together” is spelled “to” “get” “her.” We sing the spelling of some multisyllabic words. Whatever it takes.

A recent quiz had two words that were especially tricky for my daughter: “neighbor” and “through.” She was looking for ways to remember how to spell the multiple sounds in consonant combinations involving the letter “H.”  That’s when it hit us: “H” really is a magic letter.

So, here are the leadership  lessons from the magical power of the letter “H.”


The Power to Transform “H” has the ability to transform other consonants into a whole new sound:  S…Sh (show).  T…Th (thought).  C…Ch (change).  P…Ph (phenomenal).  G…Gh (Ghostbusters!). It is the combination of the two that make the third a reality.

In many of our client sessions, one of the first questions we ask clients is to think about the leader who had the most positive influence in their lives, and what things he or she did to achieve that impact. The answers are remarkably consistent across cultures, ages, types of organizations, socio-economic levels and languages:

  • “He changed the way I looked at my situation.”
  • “She helped me to create a new, better outcome than I could have on my own.”
  • “She had confidence in me to do something new and different when I didn’t have that confidence in myself.”
  • “He let me try, fail, learn and grow, and he was always right there next to me for support, — especially when things didn’t go as I planned.”

The most influential leaders help others transform into leaders in their own rights. They don’t inflict their strengths and weaknesses; rather they take what the student gives them and add to it, still letting the student take the lead. Then the leader helps them to create something neither of them could have accomplished alone. Similarly, “C” and “H” make great pure cane sugar from Hawaii, but only together can they make change.


The Power to Diminish “H” also has the power to diminish otherwise strong consonants. Let’s take another look at “through” and “neighbor.” The “H” is actually working against the “G” to the point where the “G” is almost irrelevant. It’s just a heavier “H.”  If you’ve read this far, I don’t need to explain how supervisors, managers and executive “H’s” can have this effect on the “G’s” who work under them.

Kotter International
November 13, 2014

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”


Nelson Mandela’s words illustrate the profound impact of education on leadership. Not just the kind we get in school as kids or the on-the-job experiences we cobble together to learn life’s lessons, but the formal, focused, facilitated exchange and challenge of ideas and experiences with colleagues.


This type of education encourages what I call a Phoropter Effect: the ability to change the lenses we use to see everything around us. When we see the same things around us differently, we can act differently. When we act differently, we create different outcomes than we would have before. There are a few terms that describe these different outcomes:  Innovation. Evolution. Progress. Leadership.


It’s also the type of education we use in our work with global companies to help them see the world around them – and their current actions – differently. This allows them to measure the likely outcomes of their actions against the metrics of their intentions. If they recognize their current course of action will get them what they want, they have new confidence to move faster and more decisively. If they realize their current course of action will only have limited success, we create a forum for them to try new techniques and determine different actions that will help them achieve their desired goals more quickly and effectively. The conversations are structured, focused, deliberate and applicable.

This is the power of education: the ability for participants – whether individuals or groups – to take new information, new tools and techniques and immediately convert their learning into actions. Education leads to application, creating new behavior in the student and those they influence. It also turns into leadership, a major force behind change that has a direct impact on overall outcomes.


When people jump straight into action without education, we find a deficit can occur. While expectations increase, there is no new lens, no new information, no grappling with new insights, no practicing with new techniques, no applying new tools. Instead, the gap between new expectations and the capabilities to achieve them grows wider. This expanded gap leads to an ever-accelerating spiral of more frustration, more pressure, more stress and worse results.

My colleague, Gregg LeStage, asked in his recent blog whether leadership can be taught. The clear answer is “yes.” Yet the methods, techniques, times and venues for that learning are more varied than ever. More and more, people and organizations are relying on one-on-one coaching and in-the-moment teaching, offering the advantage of immediacy but lacking scalability, consistency and safety that comes with formal education. That’s why in some corporate settings, “learning opportunity” is the new vernacular for “huge mistake.”

Education is neither the “end all” nor the “be all” for creating leaders. It is, however, a critical part of the puzzle. A puzzle which, more and more, students must create the final picture and assemble the individual pieces on their own. Organizations and leaders want to create the opportunities for all the major forms of learning leadership: one-on-one coaching, on-the-job experiences and more formal education. Those who do accelerate their managers’ and future leaders’ efforts in creating that final picture of leadership – and reap the return of their leaders managing sooner and better –versus those who simply do not. That return on investment goes beyond individual or team development; it shows up directly on the top line and the bottom line.

Are you creating the opportunities for your people to learn and apply new leadership capabilities? Do your people have all the pieces they need to assemble their picture of leadership success?  Do they have the tools and talents you need to help you in assembling yours?