8 steps for successful change management

For 20 years, Harvard Business School leadership and change guru Dr John P. Kotter’s eight steps for business transformation have helped leaders revitalise their organisations

1. UNLEASH BURNING AMBITION

As the Chinese philosopher Laozi observed 2,500 years ago: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” Unsurprisingly, Kotter’s first step is the most crucial if you are to have a chance of successfully transforming your business. Leaders often reach for the “burning platform”, says Andrew Campbell, director at Ashridge Business School’s Strategic Management Centre, to inspire a sense of change urgency in their people. “In reality that urgency comes from the fact that your boss wants it,” adds Mr Campbell, for whom success lies in really showing your commitment to the goal you’re setting. And if you do use the burning platform metaphor be careful because it spreads anxiety in your business. “In the land of burning fires there are lots of pyromaniacs,” warns Peter Fuda, Australian author of Leadership Transformed and a consultant who has worked on transformation with blue chips including Philips, Bayer and MasterCard. He cautions: “A burning platform can get you started, but in order to sustain transformation over time you must move to a burning ambition, to something that pulls you, rather than running from the fire that’s behind you – it’s exhausting.”

2. LEAN INTO THE GAP

Next Kotter believes leaders must assemble a group of managers with the power and energy to lead and support a collaborative change effort. This can start with a core of perhaps 15 senior leaders before becoming a coalition of at least 20 to 50 key people in larger organisations. How do you engage these people? It all depends on what you want, but one approach might be the “fish bowl” technique where more junior staff are asked to discuss their managers – warts and all. That might help you change a management culture, for instance. Crucially, Ashridge’s Mr Campbell advises that whoever you get in your coalition, they must be people that others will follow. A broader “must” is to engage any headwinds head-on. “The number-one factor in whether leaders succeed or fail is whether they lean into the gap or reject the gap,’ says business author Mr Fuda, suggesting that a gap could be weaknesses in an individual’s leadership or their top team, for instance. “If you embrace that gap, which is what the best leaders do, with humility but aggressively, and enjoy the process no matter how difficult it is, then it becomes a source of innovation, growth and competitive advantage,” he says.

3. START THE BALL ROLLING

Once you know you what you want and you’ve got as many key managers onside as possible, it’s time to communicate your vision and get the organisation moving towards the goal. When Jack Welch was chief executive of General Electric in the 1990s, he decided to break the company’s focus on the US market and achieved it, too. “His strategy was to announce that he wanted every business in his empire to be number-one or two in their global markets – or he would sell them,’ says Mr Campbell. “That certainly created a burning platform and was an incredible success story.” Kotter, meanwhile, advises: “If you can’t communicate the vision to someone in five minutes or less and get a reaction that signifies both understanding and interest, you are not done.” However you do it, before you set out on the journey, make sure you’ve engaged your organisation to help find the way. Mr Fuda adds: “Make sure all the leaders are agreed that we’re leaving from the same point.”

4. ASPIRATION IS EVERYTHING

When Barack Obama fought and won the 2008 US presidential election, he fought on a ticket of change. But so did John McCain. One of the many differences was that Obama offered a vision of change that aligned more closely with the aspirations of a much greater segment of the US population. So whichever way you communicate your message of change, it needs to be wedded to an aspiration that your people buy into. “Town hall” meetings work well for spreading the word; you can get a thousand staff under one roof, engage them directly and then recruit volunteers for an army of change-agents. “This is a way that you can create the ‘felt need’ – another way of talking about urgency for action,” advises Mr Campbell, who points out the impact of acts of leadership. When Colin Marshall, then head of British Airways, led BA through privatisation, from being focused on planes rather than people, he rolled up his sleeves on the shop floor. It helped his staff understand that people mattered, pretty crucial to a service like an airline. Finally, whatever you want to do, you need more people with you than against you.

Show short-term wins otherwise too many people give up or actively join the ranks of those who have been resisting change

5. ALIGNMENT IS KING

A big part of a leader’s job is to remove the barriers to change,” says Mr Campbell, who has identified ten generic impediments to successful change. For instance, is everyone clear about what needs to be done and convinced that it will be effective in achieving the benefits desired? Do your guiding coalition and those actually effecting the change really have enough time, resources and motivation to do it? Is your burning platform still blazing – in other words is there continuing pressure to drive change? “The evidence I have is that if you have more than three barriers that you’re worried about, then change isn’t going to happen,” says Mr Campbell, with each adding 15 per cent probability of failure. “If you get four, you’re below 50 per cent of it happening, so thinking those through is pretty important.” And don’t forget the broader cultural point, either. “Guide leaders in clearly identifying the type of culture that will move the organisation towards the vision, and any aggressive and defensive expectations and behaviours that currently are working against it,” says organisational culture expert Robert Cook, from Human Synergistics International in the United States. In other words, align everything to your goal.

6. MEASURED SUCCESS

A critical way to keep your organisation on track – your long-term transformation might well take five or more years to achieve – is to offer the uplifting reward and motivating drive of short-term wins. These help prove that the therapy is working and as Kotter acknowledges, if you don’t have them, “too many people give up or actively join the ranks of those who have been resisting change”. If, for example, you were Liverpool Football Club, which Mr Fuda for one holds up as an exemplary example of change management under its present ownership and team manager Brendon Rodgers, then a short-term “win” might be to finish higher up the Premiership than you did last season. While your ultimate goal remains generational league and European dominance in about five years’ time. For a football club this is relatively easy to measure, but your changing business needs some away wins, too. Give your people a shot at goal in the first half.

7. NOW STEP IT UP

It’s hard to forget President George W. Bush’s flight-suit declaration on the deck of USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003 that major military operations in Iraq were over. In the corporate sphere the mission is never accomplished. “Business transformation today is a constant process of alignment and re-alignment to our aspirations,” says Mr Fuda. “As you arrive at your goal, so you set a new goal and you start the alignment process all over again.” He advises his clients to use 11 levers – running from the impact of leadership, to strategy, to raising standards and the symbols you communicate – to align their business to suit the new ambitions they have for it. “Strategy is not enough,” he cautions. Human Synergistics International’s Mr Cooke agrees. “Identify and replace the systems, practices and structures that have inadvertently emerged, and are reinforcing the current defensive culture,” he advises. You do this, he says, by using the unwanted behaviours as “visible levers for change”, thereby communicating and enabling, and rewarding the behaviours you do want instead.

8. MAKE FLUX NEW NORMAL

Change is the medium, not the message. You must embed it. Kotter advises that you should include openness to it in your requirements for promotion, so your successors keep it up. For others, the very notion of change management is an oxymoron, partly because it implies there’s a beginning and an end. That’s not all. “Change management as an idea encourages leaders to want to control things,” warns Mr Fuda, “so, if they can get enough measures, processes and systems in place, somehow they can manage their way through massive layers of complexity. That’s just a recipe for failure.” And Mr Campbell agrees. He suggests considering agile approaches to management, empowering people to try things and see what takes off. Finally, if your change effort isn’t working, remember a piece of inspiration from Napoleon, who knew something of burning platforms, as well as burning ambition. “Nothing is lost, while courage remains,” was his dictum – which for all of us means it’s time to start again…

8 steps for successful change management