John Kotter is a professor of leadership at Harvard, as well as a best-selling author. One of his most famous books, Leading Change, outlines eight errors that cause corporate “change efforts” to fail.
How many do you recognise?
In short, the organisation doesn’t create a great enough sense of urgency for the change.
#2: Wrong people leading the change
Kotter doesn’t suggest that you get all the management team to lead change; he suggests putting together a “guiding coalition” made up of enough of the right people. That is, the types of people who can dedicate time, create opportunities and who will bring others along later. I read this to also mean the selection is representative of the whole organisation.
#3: Lack of vision
This is one I see often. I am brought to do something like “help the teams improve their agile ways of working” but find out the organisation (or department) is lacking an understanding of what the organisation wants the future to look like. Or, if there is a vision, it is unclear and nobody understands it. Let’s be honest, a good vision is not quick to create; it can take weeks or months. However, Kotter is right in highlighting that it should be easy to explain in 5 minutes. Kotter gives guidance on how to create a good vision, including making it realistic, clear but flexible, easy to communicate, etc.
#4: Not communicating the vision sufficiently
Once you have a vision, you need to tell people about it. And you need to do it often and display the changes in your own behaviour. Ideally the management team will relate everything they do back to the vision.
#5: Failure to remove blockers
Once you have a vision and have communicated it, people need to be able to move towards it. Kotter highlights that a cause of failure is caused by organisations not removing obstacles to let people do that. For example, keeping old job descriptions, team structures and processes.
#6: Lack of short-term wins
People like to see progress. People like to receive appreciation. Organisations need to build in recognition that change is bringing in benefits, otherwise people will give up. Kotter, writing the book in 1996, suggested people need to see results in 6-18 months. I personally like to see value from change quicker than that nowadays but unfortunately, for larger and older organisations, 6-18 months still sounds a realistic timescale. Frustrating, but true.
#7: Declaring victory too soon
Another classic error we still see today (think “We’re now agile!”) is when organisations celebrate achieving the end goal prematurely. Don’t mistake short-term wins for the battle being won.
#8: Failure to embed the changes as part of the organisation’s culture
No change is easy, but keeping changes in place is even harder. Kotter’s final cause for failure is the organisation’s inability to root changes into the corporate culture. Unless you can turn the new into the norm, people revert to their old ways when under pressure. Kotter’s solution is to ensure you connect improved results to the changes you have made and keep on promoting the new ways of working.
Are these the only reasons organisations fail? Of course not. Are these some of the most common reasons for failure? Probably. Should organisations do something about them? Definitely.
What’s your first step?
Leading Change, by John P. Kotter, is available in hardback, Kindle and audiobookImage by Marco Bianchetti