John P. Kotter is an American educator and author. He earned a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering and computer science in 1968 from Harvard University, a Master of Science from MIT in 1970, and a Doctor of Business Administration from the Harvard Business School in 1972. He joined the Harvard Business School in 1972 and is currently the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership, Emeritus, at Harvard Business School. He is cofounder of Kotter International, a leadership organization that helps Global 5000 company leaders accelerate the implementation of their change strategies in a complex environment. He has authored eighteen books including twelve best sellers. This book was written in the mid-1990s when the leadership meta-discipline of change was receiving significant attention both in academia and business.
Summary of Concepts
The primary thesis of Leading Change is that for organizations to be successful in a significantly changing environment they need to identify where and how top performers derail during the change process, and they need to follow an 8-step process to manage significant change to achieve transformational results. The work begins by showing how the rate of change in the business environment is significant and increasing. This is due to several forces outside an organization including increased competition, globalization, technology improvements, and social trends. The author asserts that organizations have not operated well in this rapidly changing environment as many of their structures, systems, methods, and culture have been more of a drag on change rather than a facilitator of change. Based on the author’s experience, some of the “common errors” organizations make include allowing too much complacency, not adequately leveraging effective leadership and vision, not sustaining momentum, and not incorporating a culture of change. The work outlines the eight stages that significant change initiatives should proceed through to address these common errors. Stage 1 establishes a sense of urgency by providing more information to more people more often and encourages a willingness to deal honestly with this feedback. Establishing the right sponsorship for change is Stage 2 and includes forming executive teams or coalitions that are key decision-makers, influencers, and resource owners. Stages 3 – 5 leverage leadership best practices (as compared to management practices) with an emphasis on developing a clear and compelling vision, clearly communicating that vision, and engaging employees throughout the organization through increased delegation and responsible risk taking. Stages 6 – 7 maintain change momentum by delivering and celebrating short-term wins and by consolidating those wins into clear results. Stage 8 incorporates these change best practices into the corporate culture to facilitate on-going change. The work concludes with an emphasis on developing leaders through a culture of life-long learning and leadership development.
Kotter’s purpose is to present a practical approach for organizations to use to implement significant change programs. This approach intends to address the author’s assumption that businesses have not performed well based on common errors such as complacency, unclear vision, lack of change momentum, and lack of a culture of change. The strength of the 8-step change process is that it is easy to understand and implement. Another strength is that the differences between management practices and leadership practices are clearly delineated. It strongly emphasizes the point that successful change initiatives need to be leadership driven. The 8-step process outlines how to leverage these leadership practices. The work falls short in a number of areas. First, and through the author’s own declaration, there is no attempt to cite other sources as evidence to bolster his conclusions. The work is based on the author’s experience and writings. There is no research presented that supports the efficacy of the 8-step change process. Second, the change process is presented sequentially making it an oversimplification. Although the author briefly acknowledges that many of the stages are concurrent, there is no advice on how to manage multiple, concurrent stages. Third, the work links the eight common errors to the eight change stages, but the logic that links these is not always very compelling. For example, error #2, fail to create a guiding coalition is answered by Stage 2, create a guiding coalition. It would have been more persuasive to say that individuals have neither the time nor the expertise to absorb rapid significant change and that a coalition of sponsors could leverage their relative strengths. Finally, the work falls short in addressing organizational culture change. The author suggests in Stage 8 that the culture needs to be adapted. Although culture is defined and its benefits are extolled, there are no real insights or methods offered. Overall, the author does achieve the goal of laying out a practical and implementable change process for organizations to leverage in their change journeys. All business executives considering significant change programs should read Leading Change.