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John Kotter’s 8 Step Change Model

John Kotter’s change model has eight steps: 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

John Kotter’s 8 Step Change Model

John Kotter’s excellent 8 step model of change is one of the most famous organizational change models at the moment.

It’s not always easy to help people move in a new direction…

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 cover all eight of the steps when you are planning for changes in your organization.

Step 1 – 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.

Urgency leads to action.

Step 2 – Build a guiding coalition

The second stage of this change model is to build a guiding coalition to lead the change and to 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 the ability to connect with people and gain followers.

Step 3 – Form a strategic vision

The third stage of Kotter’s model is to create a clear, vibrant, motivating and inspiring vision of the 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).

Volunteers want to help.

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

Obstacles and barriers make it hard to do things.

As soon as you have volunteers and teams working towards the new vision, the next key step, step 5, is to focus on removing 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 and 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 (perhaps with bureaucracy busters) and other barriers and to empower and trust teams to drive the changes forward.

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.

Change starts moving slowly, but the pace should increase over time.

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.

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.

Sources and further reading

Where possible we always recommend that people read up on the original sources of information and ideas.

The contents of this post have been based John Kotter’s book “Leading Change“.

For those interested in a quicker read, his charming book, “Our Iceberg is Melting“, brings the 8 steps of his change process to life through the travails of a group of penguins faced with a shrinking iceberg.

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