John Kotter’s 8-step change model is: create urgency, build a guiding coalition, form a strategic vision, enlist volunteers, enable action by removing barriers, generate short term wins, sustain acceleration and institute change.Summary by The World of Work Project
Kotter’s 8 Step Change Model
Kotter’s excellent 8 step model of change is one of the most famous organizational change models at the moment.
In his 1996 book, “Leading Change”, John Kotter argues that to effectively implement lasting change, organizations need to focus on much more than just project management. Based on his work with many organizations, he says that to effectively lead change organizations must consider group dynamics, organizational culture, communication strategies and their vision for the future, as well a being tenacious in their delivery.
The eight stages of Kotter’s change model are: create urgency, build a guiding coalition, form a strategic vision, enlist volunteers, enable action by removing barriers, generate short term wins, sustain acceleration and institute change. In our experience, many organizations and change leaders follow some of the principles of this model. But many don’t follow all of them.
We fully recommend learning this model and ensuring that you apply what’s helpful for you from it based on your context. You can learn more about how we approach leading change in our online Udemy course, The Three Lenses of Leading Change.
Step 1 – Create a sense of urgency
The first step of Kotter’s 8-step change model is to create a sense of urgency.
Individuals and teams change most effectively when they see a clear and urgent reason to do so. It follows that the first step of any change program is to create this sense of urgency. A “burning platform” must be found identified around which to tell the story of your change and through which to engage people and explain the reason for change.
Step 2 – Build a guiding coalition
The second stage of this change model is to build a guiding coalition to lead the change. This coallition should also be the face of the change. People only follow leaders and guiding groups or coalitions that they trust, that they feel represent them and that they feel have their best interests in mind. The best coalitions bring together a range of people with different skills, seniorities, voices and backgrounds. This diversity helps ensure the coalition has the ability to lead, and to connect with people and gain followers.
Step 3 – Form a strategic vision
The third stage of Kotter’s 8-step change model is to create a clear, vibrant, motivating and inspiring vision. This vision should paint a future that people will want to achieve. This is incredibly important as people will only move in a direction if they are clear on where they are heading, and if it’s a destination that they would like to reach (see more on Vision and Mission statements).
Step 4 – Enlist volunteers
Big changes only happen when many people all work together to achieve a common goal. It follows that step four of Kotter’s model is to enlist many volunteers and to create a movement.
Leaders should help many people meaningfully contribute to the change program. This will help ensure their engagement, help move them along the change curve and help encourage others to support the change.
Step 5 – Enable action by removing barriers
The fifth stage of Kotter’s 8-step change model is to remove barriers.
As soon as you have volunteers and teams working towards the new vision, the next key step is to remove as many barrier to their work and the change as possible.
Friction is the enemy of change and must be fought. At this stage the change doesn’t have much momentum. If people can’t get things done, they may lose heart and stop trying to make change happen.
To help remove barriers leaders should try to remove bureaucracy and other barriers. They should empower and trust teams to drive the changes forward. It might be worth considering bureaucracy busters.
Step 6 – Generate short term wins
By now, people have been engaged and are starting to put effort into delivering the changes. However, there isn’t much momentum for the change at this stage and the energy and enthusiasm of your change agents will be fragile.
It’s now essential to move to stage six where you build momentum and reinforce progress. This is done by ensuring a stream of short term wins happen, recognizing each of them and celebrating the success of the teams in delivering them. People only continue to drive change if they feel they’re making progress and are being recognized.
Step 7 – Sustain Acceleration
The short term wins in step six build credibility and confidence and make it possible to be more ambitious. It’s important to build on that progress and accelerate your ambition and delivery. Step seven achieves this by ensuring leaders focus on scaling to larger and more challenging change initiatives or work-streams. Riding the ever growing wave of enthusiasm and achievement will make this possible, but you must continue to celebrate successes and motivate teams along the way.
Step 8 – Institute Change
The last stage of Kotter’s model is all about ensuring that the changes to behaviors and ways of working that have been achieved are sustained. These types of changes must be embedded into the culture of the organization if the changes that have been implemented are to really last.
Kotter’s suggests that the best way to achieve this is by showing the link between success and the new behaviors. If leaders help their teams think, feel and believe that the new ways in which they are working are responsible for their new successes, then they are far more likely to maintain these behaviors.
Organizations often seek to change and improve, and often use organizational development programs to do so. There are many models that seek to explain how change in organizations happens. Some models to consider in the first instance include the ADKAR model, The Burke-Litwin Model and Lewin’s Change Model.
To learn more about how we think about and lead organizational change, you can register for our online Udemy course, leading change.
It’s worth noting that there’s a lot of discussion and challenge around organizational change theories. We have several podcasts exploring this, including this one which takes a critical approach to process models of change:
The World of Work Project View
We think that John Kotter’s eight step model is the most accessible and helpful of the organizational change models we’ve explored and think it is the best starting point for many organizations.
The model is very aligned to Kurt Lewin’s model and is excellent in theory. Each of the stages help to overcome some of the blockers to change. The real challenge though comes in applying the model in practice.
Each of the stages takes considerable effort of thought, coordination and of implementation. In many instances organizations will find it hard to effectively follow the stages, or will choose not to invest sufficiently to follow them. This is a shame as if the model is followed with the right levels of investment, it can yield great results.
Of course, reality often gets in the way of best laid plans and, whichever models you choose as a basis for managing your organizational change, you’ll need to adjust and respond to whatever the world throws at you.
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Kotter, J. P. Leading Change. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1996.
KOTTER, J. P., & RATHGEBER, H. (2006). Our iceberg is melting: changing and succeeding under any conditions. New York, St. Martin’s Press.
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Carrier, J. (2019). How to lead Organizational Change: John Kotter’s 8-step change model. Retrieved [insert date] from The World of Work Project: https://worldofwork.io/2019/03/john-kotters-8-step-change-model/