Summary of Leading Change by John P Kotter

Leading Change by John Kotter

(Summarised by Paul Arnold –  Facilitator and Trainer –

Content = ***   Readability = **** Clarity & Structure = **** 


Driving change requires 8 key steps:

1- Establish a sense of urgency

2- Create a guiding coalition

3- Develop a vision & strategy

4- Communicate the change vision

5- Empower employees for broad-based action

6- Generate short-term wins

7- Consolidate gains and produce more change

8- Anchor new approaches in the culture


Change is inevitable for survival (cf Darwin). But change can often be difficult, painful and slow.

This is often due to the interconnectedness of things (change one thing in a system, and it impacts others things). Thus change usually means changing everything (that’s why everyone needs to be involved) and it’s more than likely that you will never get complete or perfect change.

Change requires constant and never ending ‘pushing’ and support to ensure it stays (else the system will rapidly default back to the old patterns of behaviour).

The key reasons why major change programmes fail:

-Too much complacency.

-Fail to create a sufficiently powerful guiding coalition.

-Underestimate the power of vision.

-Under-communicate the vision (by a factor of 1,000!)

-Permit obstacles to block the new vision.

-Fail to create short-term wins.

-Declare victory too soon.

-Neglect to anchor changes firmly in the corporate culture.


Everyone must ‘feel’ the real need for change.

There is often ‘change exhaustion’/cynicism (i.e. “not another one!”) that one needs to counter.

Need constant energy and belief to push on through the inertia.

Change always takes longer and is more complex (and hence costlier) than one first thinks.

The organisation, like any system, will try to reject foreign matter, and want to return to a state of balance – often done at an unconscious level.

Change can’t be achieved alone – need the whole organisation galvanized for change.

People think they have reached the top of the change mountain and give up too soon (and then go tumbling down again).

Need to alter the frame from ‘change is bad’ to ‘change is exciting’ (or ‘change is critical to our survival’).

Don’t expect to be liked – they will blame you, hate you and try to pull you down before they will change.

Three forms of resistance: Overt, Covert and Unconscious – It’s the covert and unconscious that kills change programmes, so need to spend time ‘getting it out’.

Three types of resistance: 1) Don’t agree with the need for change; 2) Don’t agree with the direction of change or 3) Don’t agree with the methodology of change.

The 8 steps:

1- Establish a sense of urgency

People need to know why they must change.

This sense of urgency needs to be there constantly.

One needs hard facts – but critically need to bring them alive emotionally.

They need to experience the need for change themselves to truly internalise it – e.g. stakeholder videos.

Need to get the big issues from below the tables, and get them talked about (as awareness/acceptance is the first and most crucial step of change).

Difficult to shout ‘Danger!’ when sitting in a mahogany clad board room with private jets and limousines – so need the management to embody the change they wish to see in others – it needs to start at the top.

Employees need to see themselves not as victims but able to control the issues (“We can do this”) and not hide behind external factors that dis-empowers them.

Beware complacency driven by:

-Over optimism/over selling.

-Groupthink & ‘shoot the messenger’ attitude to information that challenges the  ‘comfort’ of the organisation.

It’s critical to escalate the level of urgency. Some of the tactics to employ are:

-Creating a crisis (if people can’t see it, they don’t believe there is a problem).

-Set objectives (BHAGS) that cannot be achieved by current activities/strategies.

-Everyone to be measured against the bigger goals (and less against the smaller,  departmentalized goals).

-Make everyone aware of failing key metrics (e.g. customer satisfaction, financial health, competitive benchmarks etc).

-Insist people talk regularly to unsatisfied customers, unhappy suppliers and disgruntled shareholders.

-Use consultants to uncover the truths.

-Stop ‘happy talk’ and start ‘real truth’ talk.

Increase number of honest discussions (let the truth be heard).

2- Create a guiding coalition

No one individual can do it all alone – s/he needs to inspire a team who want to follow that vision (cf the apostles).

Needs a team to spread the word – but not to do all the work. The whole organisation needs to feel responsible for change – everyone is an agent of change.

The guiding coalition should be made up of people who are credible/authoritative so can influence others; and have the expertise & skills to help guide the decision making process through the change.

Management style is critical to employee engagement (more EQ & respect than bullying/ordering).

3- Develop a vision & strategy

Having a clear vision & strategy directs, aligns and inspires action in all employees.

Also helps provide clarity over every single decision made within an organization and clears the decks of unnecessary projects/actions.

The ‘Vision story’ needs to be constantly told – when you think you have told everyone, tell them again (and again…).

Actions speak louder than words so need to enact it – we learn primarily through modelling.

The 6 characteristics of a great vision statement: Imaginable, Desirable, Feasible, Focused, Flexible & Communicable.

(cf – The importance of the ‘why’

4- Communicate the change vision

Great visions are nothing if they cannot be communicated. Thus use of story/metaphor, multiple media (/people), simplicity and repetition, and leading by example all apply. 

5- Empower employees for broad-based action

Many organizational forces prevent employees from making the changes required:

-Formal structures (e.g. departmental silos).

-Belief systems and past values – sometimes the ‘sacred cows’ do need to be slaughtered.

-Lack of skills (either train in or bring in new talent with the new skills required).  Also people with the ‘old skills’ will hold back the change.

-Systems – e.g. old processes, bonus systems (that reward old behaviour) or  keep measuring the wrong things.

-Departmental bosses – Senior personnel have often risen to their positions by doing the old things really well and are hence more reluctant to shift behaviour. NB They are highly influential and can ‘poison’ change – especially if their department is threatened by the changes.

Leaders need to take tough decisions.

6- Generate short-term wins

It’s critical to maintain the belief and support for the change.

Generating some quick wins helps to maintain belief, keeps the critics at bay and refuels the momentum.

Short term wins need to be visible, unambiguous, clearly related to the change programme and authentic.

7- Consolidate gains and produce more change

Don’t let the sense of urgency drop, as this is the point an organization can start to go backwards (as resistance is always waiting to reassert itself).

Use data especially comparisons vs. competition (but bring it alive).

Start slowly with just a few (often smaller) projects – but this is the time where it really can get pushed on, with up to 20 change projects.

Having gained some momentum it’s now possible to tackle some of the bigger change projects (often the big ‘blocks/issues’ will lead back to the fundamental driving beliefs of an organisation).

Also need to create a more ‘open system’ where anyone can contribute ideas/raise issues/identify extra areas that need change.

8- Anchor new approaches in the culture

Need to get the new behaviours/ values/ beliefs firmly rooted

Change is never ending so need to instil a culture of constant change (and learning)


This is a solid model built more on experience than theory (both a strength and a weakness).  That said any model simplifies a complex situation – and no model fits all organizations.

Change is incredibly complex and thus cannot be controlled so precisely.

This model starts from a basic assumption that people will resist change – and that is not always true.

Kotter takes a simplified, reductionist view of organisations and that they are based on a basic ‘command and control’ approach. Far too general (and potentially dangerous for new change agents).

About slooowdown

Consultant in the fields of Relationships and Change
This entry was posted in Behaviour change, Transformational teams. Bookmark the permalink.

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