“Earlier this year our leadership team spent some time reading John Kotter’s book, ‘Leading Change.’ The goal was to adopt a common perspective within the team when it comes to change and change management. Over the course of several meetings, we discussed various aspects of the book and how they applied to our situation. Personally, I was encouraged by the process, because we took the time to have some pretty deep discussions in which perspectives and concerns were shared. I wonder what your take on this is.”
John Kotter is an acknowledged expert in organizational change. In addition to “Leading Change,” his bestselling books include “A Sense of Urgency,” and “Our Iceberg is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions.” For the record, I’m a big fan of Kotter. I also like the approach your company is taking.
Let me begin by noting that we live in a world of fast-paced change as the 21st century unfolds. All we need to do is look at the rapid changes associated with the rise of social media and telecommunications to see the fast pace of change in the world around us. But we need to realize that change is part of the human condition and nothing new. For as the ancient Greek philosopher and poet Heraclitus observed, “There is nothing permanent in life except change.”
It is the speed and scope of change today that is unprecedented. Our heads can start spinning if we are not careful, as we try to keep up. But as one of my consulting colleagues likes to observe, maybe the trick is to slow down, rather than try to keep up. He notes that we must “never underestimate the speed or the power of going slow.” I think what he’s trying to say is that just as we use both the brake and the gas pedal when we drive a car, we must also know when to pick up the pace (or not) in our organizational lives.
Kotter’s perspective is instructive along these lines. He notes that the capacity to live with change involves three basic kinds of choices.
• Primary choices.
Choices that involve specific results (e.g., “I want my child to go to college.”).
• Secondary choices.
Choices that support the primary choices (e.g., “I will require my child to study two hours every night.”).
• Fundamental choices.
Choices that involve our basic state of being (e.g., “I will pursue my own education at a great personal sacrifice so as to model what I value.”).
The implication is that if we are going to effectively navigate change, then we must know who we are, where we are going and why. Rather than chase around trying to keep up with the Jones,’ Kotter suggests that we make choices that help us become what we are capable of becoming, relative to our own unique gifts and talents. This is true for individuals and for organizations.
Think about it for a moment. What Kotter is suggesting is that we must know ourselves and operate with interpersonal authenticity. For example, before I can worry about competing with the other person, I first must understand who I am and what I need to do to maximize my contributions. In other words, Dan Schroeder’s fundamental choice each day is to decide what kind of “Dan Schroeder” he’s going to be.
To be honest, some days that choice is easy and some days it is hard. Some days I like the guy who is staring at me in the mirror when I’m shaving in the morning. Some days I don’t. The fundamental choice for me is to try to be the best I’m capable of being … or not. For me, when I make that choice each day, I’m reminded of the great UCLA men’s basketball coach, John Wooden, one of whose maxims was “Make each day your masterpiece!” That gets me headed in the right direction, anyway.
Organizationally, for leaders at all levels, the implication is to set the right tone. Start by making fundamental choices that speak to the highest values in ourselves. Align actions with core values. Act with personal integrity at all times. Encourage others to do the same.
Kotter’s Change Model outlines how leaders and organizations can successfully implement planned programs of change. The steps are:
- Establishing a sense of urgency.
- Creating the guiding coalition.
- Developing a vision and strategy.
- Communicating the change vision.
- Empowering broad-based action.
- Generating short-term wins.
- Consolidating gains and producing more change.
- Anchoring new approaches in the culture.
Kotter has identified that change initiatives often fail for predictable reasons, including:
- Allowing too much complacency.
- Failing to create a sufficiently powerful guiding coalition.
- Underestimating the power of vision.
- Under communicating the vision.
- Permitting obstacles to block the new vision.
- Failing to create short-term wins.
- Declaring the victory too soon.
- Neglecting to anchor changes firmly in the corporate culture.
I like the fact that your leadership team took some time to develop a common viewpoint regarding change. From my perspective, an important aspect of what you began to do was to develop a common language. In my experience, leaders are most effective leading change when a clear and compelling narrative is associated with the initiative. It is important to be intentional and explicit in the storytelling surrounding the program of change. Review the eight reasons why change initiatives fail, in the list above, and think about the power and impact of a united team of leaders singing from the same song sheet in mitigating these elements.
In the final analysis, yes, we do live in a world of change. From time to time, I suppose, we all wonder if the changes will ever come to an end. Life would be a lot easier without all of this perpetual change! But, as we all know, ongoing change is inevitable.
There was one noteworthy sage, though, who once determined that all the change that could happen had already happened. His name was Henry L. Ellsworth and he was in charge of the U.S. Patent Office in 1843, acting, in essence as the chief record keeper of changes of a certain type. He observed, “The advancement of the arts, from year to year, taxes our credulity and seems to presage the arrival of that period when human improvement must end.”
Sorry, Henry, the quest for human improvement continues, 150-plus years later!