John Kotter is a change management guru, and his eight-step change model provides a guide for transformational leadership. His book, Leading Change is considered as one of the twenty-five most influential books on business management ever to be published. Kotter’s 8-step change model is explained in detail in this work, but we’ll boil it down to basics so that you can get a feel for the model in just a few minutes.
Kotter’s 8-Step Change Model – A Framework for Change
Before we dig down into details, let’s get an overview of Kotter’s 8-step change model so that we can see how the steps fit together.
Kotter saw these steps as dealing with three broad stages of change management:
Creating the climate for successful change (3 steps)
- Build urgency
- Build a team to guide change
- Develop the right vision
Engaging the organization in change and enabling it to undertake change (3 steps)
- Communicate to get organization-wide buy-in
- Empower action so that change can take place
- Get short-term wins to build momentum
Implementing change and sustaining it (2 steps)
- Sustain the momentum of change
- Make new methods the norm (institute change)
A Closer Look at Kotter’s 8-Step Change Model
For a truly in-depth knowledge of Kotter’s change-management thinking, you should certainly read his books on the topic.
Leading Change is undoubtedly his magnum opus, but many readers have enjoyed Our Iceberg is Melting in which he and co-author Holger Rathgeber demonstrate Kotter’s 8-step Change model from the perspective of a penguin colony that needs change to survive.
In other works, Kotter expands still further on individual steps within the model. We won’t give you a book on each, but we will provide a handy summary right here.
Creating the Climate for Succesful Change
1. Building Urgency
You may know that there’s an urgent need for change, but before you embark on any attempt to make changes, it’s important that everybody understands that urgency.
What’s the crisis that’s driving you towards change? Have you seen an opportunity that your business needs to grab with both hands? Your team needs to understand and care about the problem or opportunity before they can become the change champions you need.
Kotter argues that dry analyses and data aren’t going to create the sense of urgency and the level of motivation you need for successful change. Instead, he recommends connecting with people on an emotional level. That, says Kotter, takes creativity.
Without this sense of urgency, you will face inertia rather than inspiration. Practical tips for building urgency include:
- Listening to frontline employees who work with your customers – regardless of their formal rank or status in your organization.
- Using customer testimonials to convey the need for change. Video is particularly powerful and needn’t be costly to shoot.
- Not keeping the bad news to yourself. If there is troubling information, hiding it away or covering it up doesn’t help your employees to understand the urgency of change.
- Sending staff who don’t normally have contact with clients on a mission to find out what your customers really
Kotter emphasizes that building urgency requires an outward focus.
2. Build a Team to Guide Change
If you were to follow traditional methods, you’d appoint the change management team. But are they the right people for the job? They might say they are committed to change, but what do they think in their heart of hearts? Kotter says that the first step of the process, creating urgency, will help you to see who is committed to change.
He warns that the “right” team might take you out of your comfort zone. They will tell you what they think, even if they know it’s not what you want to hear. As a leader, you need to be ready for these uncomfortable truths, and your team needs to know that it can be honest and fearless.
In a short video presentation and article, Kotter explains that your “coalition” might have some surprising members and provides insights on how to identify them. They’ll come from different functions and different levels, but what they will have in common is a commitment to change.
Kotter asserts that change will not be successful without honest communication, and in the process, your change leaders will come to the fore.
3. Develop the Right Vision
There’s no point in trying to work towards a better future if your organization doesn’t know what it’s trying to achieve. What will the future be like after change has run its course? Kotter emphasizes that the vision must transcend mere data.
What will the organization be like? What opportunities will this allow us to grab? According to Kotter, an effective change vision should have the following characteristics:
- Can be written on a document no more than half a page long
- Can be communicated in 60 seconds
- Is “intellectually solid”
- Has emotional appeal
- Can be understood by everyone
- Should target the specific change (not a generic vision statement)
- Must be aligned with overall vision
Once you have a vision that effectively communicates what you need to achieve, the next step is to see how your company must change to achieve the vision. Then, you are ready to break up the changes into step-by-step action plans and determine budgets for the execution of the plans.
Engaging the Organization in Change
4. Get Organization-Wide Buy-In
You have already created a sense of urgency that has made the people in your organization hungry for change. Their subsequent actions and inputs have helped you to identify a change-management coalition. It has prepared a vision and has prepared a strategy for realizing it. Now, it’s time to communicate.
Change processes have often been compared to the stages of grieving a lost loved one. When people hear about impending change, they may at first receive the news with disbelief and mistrust, they may be angry, and they may resist the process. The communication stage aims to eliminate some of the obstacles to change.
To achieve this, there must be:
- A transfer of highly relevant information coupled with the right to ask questions and get answers
- Honest dialogue that leads to understanding and not only a simple transfer of data
- Behavior that demonstrates commitment to the vision
Although the vision itself may be easy to grasp, Kotter warns that under-communication is a pitfall to avoid. That doesn’t mean that communication needs to be costly, but Kotter notes that sending out a few memos won’t have much meaning to people who, though affected by the change, spend most of their time following their work routine.
5. Empower Action
To make action possible, we need to remove obstacles to action. Sometimes, there are people in your organization who aren’t committed to change. If any of them are managers, it will be difficult for teams to go ahead with change initiatives. Honest commitment to change is essential for your success.
Why do people resist change? One of the biggest reasons is that they don’t see the need for it. Talking may not convince them. Demonstrating the need for change is far more effective.
The way your organization is structured can also disempower those who are eager to help you work towards a better future. Look out for policies and procedures that will act as barriers to successful change and adjust them to empower your team.
Finally, try to keep the change process as positive as possible. Recognize those who are contributing to successful change and share their achievements. Be ready to step in with constructive feedback and practical assistance as needed.
6. Get Short-Term Wins to Build Momentum
In any change process, there will be elements of the strategy that your team can easily implement to achieve instant or near-instant results. There will also be longer-term changes that will take longer to bear fruit.
Your team needs to achieve a few easy victories to keep them feeling energized. If the results of change can’t be seen early on, it’s easy to become discouraged. Easy wins not only help to keep those who have committed to change motivated, but they also help to win over cynics who secretly (or openly) resisted change.
Be sure to celebrate each victory so that everyone in the organization is caught up in the excitement of achievement. Although you might be eager to start with the big, time-consuming changes, creating a few easy wins will give your team the momentum they need to tackle the longer-term change processes with greater energy and commitment.
Implementing and Sustaining the Change
7. Sustain the Momentum
Now that you have some early successes, your team can see some of the benefits of your change strategy in action. But it’s not time to let go of the sense of urgency. The next waves of the change process may be harder to navigate, but if you can get through them, you will have achieved the change you wanted.
Kotter emphasizes the need to show people how continuing with change will result in improvement. If they are convinced of the urgent need for change, they will help you to implement it. If you lose the sense of urgency, they may feel that no further change is necessary.
Here, we see how all the steps of the change management process overlap. Just as you “showed” people the need for overall change, you will show them why each step in the change process is necessary.
Clear, practical examples are better than abstract theories or complex data, so be creative in finding real-life situations that demonstrate the need to move ahead with each wave of changes.
8. Make the New Methods the Norm
Kotter asserts that new ways of getting things done must become part of the culture of the organization. And they’re only properly embedded into culture once they’ve become the norm. Just as we showed people a need for change, we need to show them the tangible benefits that we have achieved through change.
This affirmation helps to embed the change into the organization’s culture. People can see why the change was needed and how the organization is succeeding now that new methods are being implemented.
They also see that those who have been instrumental in facilitating change have gained recognition, and they see that those who struggle are being helped through coaching and training.
Implementing Kotter’s 8-Step Change Model
According to Kotter, there are two primary elements to change management: the processes we want to improve, and the people who must implement the change.
1. A Focus on People
Kotter maintains that we should never lose touch with the human element when we embark on organizational change. We are looking to change behaviors, and to do so, we need people’s engagement.
In summary, Kotter emphasizes that for successful change, people must:
- See the need for change
- Feel motivated and eager to take action
- Change the way they work so that they can realize a vision they want to attain
2. A Focus on Processes
Processes are the backbone of your business. They’re what your employees do on a day-to-day basis, and hence, what you should focus on changing.
Making new processes stick, though, isn’t easy. Your employees like the status quo – learning how to do something they’re used to in a completely different way isn’t fun. Even if you explain why the new process is significantly better, you can’t really make that they follow it (unless you constantly stand behind their shoulders).
Using workflow management software can make process enforcement a lot easier. Rather than having to inform your employees about the changes, you can just create digital processes & make changes there. The system will, in turn, enforce the new process rather than the old. And you know what’s the best part? The software is free to try – give it a go and see how workflow management can help with your change management initiative.
Other than managing the actual process of change, you should also be able to get your employees on board. They are, after all, the ones that are going to make the change possible (or act as obstacles). To learn more about getting employee buy-in, read up on the ADKAR Model or Bridges’ Transition Model. Or, if you’re looking for something more comprehensive, check out our guide to change management models.