In The Heart of Change, John P. Kotter and Dan S. Cohen argue that successful large-scale organizational change happens in eight stages, and show how the central challenge in all eight stages is not strategy, systems or culture but changing people’s behavior.
People change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings. This is especially so in large-scale organizational change, where you are dealing with new technologies, mergers and acquisitions, restructurings, new strategies, cultural transformation, globalization, and e-business— whether in an entire organization, an office, a department, or a work group. In an age of turbulence, when you handle this reality well, you win. Handle it poorly, and it can drive you crazy, cost a great deal of money, and cause a lot of pain.
The lessons here come from two sets of interviews, the first completed seven years ago, the second within the last two years. About 400 people from 130 organizations answered our questions. We found, in brief, that:[ms-protect-content id=”9932″]
• Highly successful organizations know how to overcome antibodies that reject anything new. They know how to grab opportunities and avoid hazards. They see that bigger leaps are increasingly associated with winning big. They see that continuous gradual improvement, by itself, is no longer enough.
• Successful large-scale change is a complex affair that happens in eight stages. The flow is this: push urgency up, put together a guiding team, create the vision and strategies, effectively communicate the vision and strategies, remove barriers to action, accomplish short-term wins, keep pushing for wave after wave of change until the work is done, and, finally, create a new culture to make new behavior stick.
• The central challenge in all eight stages is changing people’s behavior. The central challenge is not strategy, not systems, not culture. These elements and many others can be very important, but the core problem without question is behavior— what people do, and the need for significant shifts in what people do.
• Changing behavior is less a matter of giving people analysis to influence their thoughts than helping them to see a truth to influence their feelings. Both thinking and feeling are essential, and both are found in successful organizations, but the heart of change is in the emotions. The flow of see-feel-change is more powerful than that of analysis-think-change. These distinctions between seeing and analyzing, between feeling and thinking, are critical because, for the most part, we use the latter much more frequently, competently, and comfortably than the former.
The Eight Stages of Successful Large-Scale Change
To understand why some organizations are leaping into the future more successfully than others, you need first to see the flow of effective large-scale change efforts. In almost all cases, there is a flow, a set of eight steps that few people handle well.
Step 1: Whether at the top of a large private enterprise or in small groups at the bottom of a nonprofit, those who are most successful at significant change begin their work by creating a sense of urgency among relevant people. In smaller organizations, the “relevant” are more likely to number 100 than 5, in larger organizations 1,000 rather than 50. The less successful change leaders aim at 5 or 50 or 0, allowing what is common nearly everywhere—too much complacency, fear, or anger, all three of which can undermine change. A sense of urgency, sometimes developed by very creative means, gets people off the couch, out of a bunker, and ready to move.
Step 2: With urgency turned up, the more successful change agents pull together a guiding team with the credibility, skills, connections, reputations, and formal authority required to provide change leadership. This group learns to operate as do all good teams, with trust and emotional commitment. The less successful rely on a single person or no one, weak task forces and committees, or complex governance structures, all without the stature and skills and power to do the job. The landscape is littered with task forces ill equipped to produce needed change.
Step 3: In the best cases, the guiding team creates sensible, clear, simple, uplifting visions and sets of strategies. In the less successful cases, there are only detailed plans and budgets that, although necessary, are insufficient, or a vision that is not very sensible in light of what is happening in the world and in the enterprise, or a vision that is created by others and largely ignored by the guiding team. In unsuccessful cases, strategies are often too slow and cautious for a faster-moving world.
Step 4: Communication of the vision and strategies comes next—simple, heartfelt messages sent through many unclogged channels. The goal is to induce understanding, develop a gut-level commitment, and liberate more energy from a critical mass of people. Here, deeds are often more important than words. Symbols speak loudly. Repetition is key. In the less successful cases, there is too little effective communication, or people hear words but don’t accept them. Remarkably, smart people undercommunicate or poorly communicate all the time without recognizing their error.
Step 5: In the best situations, you find a heavy dose of empowerment. Key obstacles that stop people from acting on the vision are removed. Change leaders focus on bosses who disempower, on inadequate information and information systems, and on self-confidence barriers in people’s minds. The issue here is removing obstacles, not “giving power.” You can’t hand out power in a bag. In less successful situations, people are often left to fend for themselves despite impediments all around. So frustration grows, and change is undermined.
Step 6: With empowered people working on the vision, in cases of great success those people are helped to produce short-term wins. The wins are critical. They provide credibility, resources, and momentum to the overall effort. In other cases, the wins come more slowly, less visibly, speak less to what people value, and have more ambiguity as to whether they really are successes. Without a well-managed process, careful selection of initial projects, and fast enough successes, the cynics and skeptics can sink any effort.
Step 7: In the best cases, change leaders don’t let up. Momentum builds after the first wins. Early changes are consolidated. People shrewdly choose what to tackle next, then create wave after wave of change until the vision is a reality. In less successful cases, people try to do too much at once. They unwittingly quit too soon. They let momentum slip to the point where they find themselves hopelessly bogged down.
Step 8: Finally, in the best cases, change leaders throughout organizations make change stick by nurturing a new culture. A new culture— group norms of behavior and shared values—develops through consistency of successful action over a sufficient period of time. Here, appropriate promotions, skillful new employee orientation, and events that engage the emotions can make a big difference. In other cases, changes float fragile on the surface. A great deal of work can be blown away by the winds of tradition in a remarkably short period of time.
The Flow of Change
The process of change involves subtle points regarding overlapping stages, guiding teams at multiple levels in the organization, handling multiple cycles of change, and more. Because the world is complex, some cases do not rigidly follow the eight-step flow. But the eight steps are the basic pattern associated with significant useful change—all possible despite an inherent organizational inclination not to leap successfully into a better future.
See, Feel, Change
Significantly changing the behavior of a single person can be exceptionally difficult work. Changing 101 or 10,001 people can be a Herculean task. Yet organizations that are leaping into the future succeed at doing just that. Look carefully at how they act and you’ll find another pattern. They succeed, regardless of the stage in the overall process, because their most central activity does not center on formal data gathering, analysis, report writing, and presentations— the sorts of actions typically aimed at changing thinking in order to change behavior. Instead, they compellingly show people what the problems are and how to resolve the problems. They provoke responses that reduce feelings that slow and stifle needed change, and they enhance feelings that motivate useful action. The emotional reaction then provides the energy that propels people to push along the change process, no matter how great the difficulties.
The stories presented throughout the book clarify this pattern, showing what can be done to enable the process. In chapter 1 (which deals with urgency), a procurement manager starts a needed change by creating a dramatic presentation. On the board- room table he piles 424 different kinds of gloves that the firm is currently buying for its workers at dozens of different prices for the same glove and from dozens of different suppliers. First people are shocked, then the gut-level sense of complacency shrinks and urgency grows. It’s an image, hard to shake, that evokes a feeling that we must do something.
In chapter 2 (guiding team), the army officer doesn’t pull together his new change team with a rational argument. Instead, he shocks them by taking a risk for the greater good with his comments in a meeting.
The aircraft plant manager in chapter 3 (vision and strategies) ceases to just talk to his people about developing ambitious strategies to fit an ambitious quality vision. Instead, he takes dramatic action. He stops the normal production process—just stops it—so everyone must stare all day long at a gigantic plane that can no longer move along the production line. After the initial shock, and with his continuously upbeat behavior, employees begin developing all sorts of new strategies for leaping ahead in procurement, logistics, and quality control.
In chapter 4 (communication), people logically explain why maintaining a lush executive floor is cost-effective in an age of cut- backs—the logic being that it would cost more to change the architecture and décor to make it look less excessive. But that communication convinces few employees and allows cynicism to grow. So they “nuke” the floor, making it less regal, and shock employees in a way that increases their faith in top management and their belief in the vision.
In chapter 5 (empowerment), managers refuse to demote, fire, or “retrain” someone who is staunchly against change and who disempowers others from helping with change. Instead they loan him to a customer, where he is dramatically confronted each day with the problems the customer is having with his products. What he sees generates shock, then feelings that help the man rise to the occasion. He returns to his employer a manager reborn. Approaching his job in a whole new way, he helps the firm make changes that benefit customers, employees, and owners.
In chapter 6 (short-term wins), a manager does not ignore an influential state Senator or sell him on a change effort’s progress with graphs and charts. Instead, the manager finds out what the Senator really cares about. Then he dramatically reduces the number of ridiculous, bureaucratic forms needed to be filled out in that area. He shows the Senator the result, surprising the man in the most positive sense. As a result, the Senator begins actively supporting the change effort.
In chapter 7 (not letting up), a task force knows top management behavior is slowing down the change process. But instead of ducking the issue, or trying to describe it in antiseptic terms, the task force creates a hilarious video with actors spoofing the problem. The amusing, nonconfrontational video gives those executives trying to create change a much-needed tool for legitimizing new top management behavior.
In chapter 8 (making change stick), staff write a good speech about the values the firm has created and needs to strengthen and retain if their transformation is to be firmly entrenched. But the real power comes when they present a real customer to employees. He tells an inspirational story showing the consequences of living those values.
Stories like these reveal a core pattern associated with successful change.
• SEE. People find a problem in some stage of the change process—too many of their colleagues are behaving complacently, no one is developing a sensible strategy, too many are letting up before the strategy has been achieved. They then create dramatic, eye-catching, compelling situations that help others visualize the problem or a solution to the problem.
• FEEL. The visualizations awaken feelings that facilitate useful change or ease feelings that are getting in the way. Urgency, optimism, or faith may go up. Anger, complacency, cynicism, or fear may go down.
• CHANGE. The new feelings change or reinforce new behavior, sometimes very different behavior. People act much less complacently. They try much harder to make a good vision a reality. They don’t stop before the work is done, even if the road seems long.
Successful see-feel-change tactics tend to be clever, not clumsy, and never cynically manipulative. They often have an afterglow, where the story of the event is told again and again or where there is a remaining visible sign of the event that influences additional people over time. When done well over all eight stages of a change process, the results can be breathtaking. Mature (old-fashioned, clunky, or heavy) organizations take a leap into the future. Laggards start to become leaders. Leaders jump farther ahead.
The point is not that careful data gathering, analysis, and presentation are unimportant. They are important. Sometimes it is behavior changed by analysis that sends people into a see-feel-change process. Sometimes change launched through feelings creates a radically better approach to analysis. Often small changes are a necessary part of a larger change effort, and the small changes are driven by analysis. Occasionally, careful analysis is required to get show-me-the-numbers finance people or engineers in the mood to see.
We fail at change efforts not because we are stupid, over-controlled, and unemotional beings, although it can seem that way at times. We fail because we haven’t sufficiently experienced highly successful change. Without that experience, we are too often left pessimistic, fearful, or without enough faith to act. So we not only behave in less effective ways, we don’t even try.
Consider the implications of this pattern in an age of accelerating change, at a time when we are making a mind-boggling transition from an industrial to an information/knowledge economy. Consider the implications in light of how managers, management educators, and others today deal with large-scale change.
Of course there are many difficulties here, but being uninformed and pessimistic does not help. We need more leaps into the future. And although we are becoming better at this, there is no reason that we cannot learn to become much better still.
In light of the stakes, we must become better still.
In a recent edition of Fortune magazine, Jack Welch is quoted as saying, “You’ve got to talk about change every second of the day.” That’s a bit of an extreme position, but maybe extreme is what wins.
Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations by John P. Kotter and Dan S. Cohen. Copyright 2012. All rights reserved.
About the Author
John Kotter is the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership, Emeritus at Harvard Business School. He is also Head of Research at Kotter International, a firm that helps leaders accelerate strategy implementation in their organizations. Kotter International helps large-scale organizations move faster, with more efficiency, enabling success no matter the obstacles. www.kotterinternational.com