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  • Writer's pictureAri Betof

8 of the Most Important Steps Toward Making Positive Change a Reality

Change is hard. That’s why Dr. John P. Kotter, entrepreneur, Harvard Business School professor, and leading expert in the field of organizational change and leadership, created an eight-step plan to help leaders in any type of organization facilitate it well.

Kotter works with clients at his Kotter International leadership development consulting firm. He has also authored numerous books on leadership and change. Through his work, he has numerous companies and organizations improve their internal processes and cultures.

His article “Accelerate!” published in the Harvard Business Review in 2012, is among his most widely-known and influential writings. In it, Kotter first notes that many traditional processes are now failing. This is due in large part to the fact that humans are simply unable to keep up with the rapid pace of change all around us. This often leaves leaders stuck between two contradictory priorities: delivering immediate bottom-line results and keeping ahead of the competition.

He believes traditional hierarchical systems of management are able to fulfill the everyday requirements of keeping an operation running. However, they only rarely help leaders quickly and accurately identify and respond to challenges. They are similarly unable to form and launch creative, effective change initiatives.

Kotter’s solution in the article involves creating a “dual operating system” in organizations. In this model, a separate strategic network is formed that is composed of a diverse group of staff from all levels within an organization. These strategic response teams can cut through bureaucratic limitations, siloed thinking, and other barriers to execute the organization’s strategic vision. Meanwhile, this new system works in concert with more traditional hierarchies that themselves work on maintaining and growing efficiency through incremental change.

Kotter further built out this concept in his 2014 book XLR8: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World. In this book, he unpacks five central principles and eight “Accelerators” for such a new system. He also outlines how leaders at any level can become role models in bringing a sense of urgency to looking for and taking advantage of “the big opportunity.”

The Kotter 8-Step Process for Leading Change is based on these and other aspects of Kotter’s work over four decades as a thought leader. During this time, he has had the opportunity to observe organizations and their leadership at close range as they have developed, implemented, and evaluated a variety of acceleration and change strategies. His 8-Step Process is the result of a distillation of his observations and insights over time.

Here are the eight steps Kotter outlines:

1. Foster a sense of urgency.

Cultivating a sense of urgency, says Kotter, is essential for any leader hoping to forge ahead and succeed in a chaotic world, one in which acceleration itself continues to accelerate. Without a sense of urgency, inertia and complacency can set in, decreasing the desire to make the crucial changes that lead to useful action.

People simply don’t like change, particularly when it forces them outside established patterns of thought and behavior. Kotter’s process entails making explicit the fact that current practices, products, or systems are not up to the job, and communicating both respect for the efforts that built them and the reasons for moving forward. That way, leaders can help instill a newfound sense of urgency and action in their teams.

2. Assemble a steering committee.

Any organizational change needs a group of key individuals behind it, committed to giving it life and moving it forward toward realization. A “guiding coalition” as Kotter envisages it, is a group of highly-effective people drawn from an organization’s own ranks who can develop, coordinate, and share a new mission and strategies. Working as a team, this coalition can foster a sense of urgency and a desire for change within an organization.

3. Be intentional and explicit about your vision for change.

By mapping out a detailed guide to an organization’s vision for change, and linking key concepts into a coherent whole that is easy to remember and describe, leaders help to cement that vision in the minds of their teams and the public. A clear, easily articulated vision enables team members to see the big picture, understand their role in it, see what success looks like, and find the motivation to help the organization get there.

4. Recruit a legion of volunteers.

In order for their vision and a strategic plan to succeed, leaders need to mobilize people at all levels of an organization. Employees need to be brought on board and kept moving in the same direction, as implementers, change agents, and cheerleaders for the organization’s efforts. It will be leadership’s job to help as many people as possible to become informed, reach consensus, and stay engaged.

5. Facilitate action by cutting through red tape.

Another central part of the process—and one that serves as a catalyst that enables the others to happen—is ensuring that needless barriers of process and hierarchy can be cleared out of the way. This will open up the field for work across organizational divisions, and can in itself lead to genuine creativity and constructive problem-solving.

6. Rack up short-term wins.

People need to be able to celebrate milestones, to feel recognized for the work they’ve accomplished, and to see progress as they work toward the completion of a project. In the early days, commitment and enthusiasm may flag, unless leaders keep momentum going by making sure that their teams have the chance to enjoy and then build on short-term victories.

7. Maintain momentum.

After the initial successes, leaders will need to stay alert to the fact that they are entering a period in which complexities may multiply and the task appears harder. They will need to push on, and make sure their teams have the will and the tools needed to push on, toward the finish line. Leaders can leverage their growing credibility, built up over previous series of short-term wins, to further improve on systems, policies, and procedures. As Kotter puts it, they will need to be “relentless” in creating one change after another until their vision has become reality.

8. Incorporate the change into your organization.

This is the point at which change solidifies. Leaders at this stage will be consolidating previous work so that the changes they’ve helped create become embedded deeply into organizational culture in lasting ways.

The ideal way of ensuring this happens is to clearly demonstrate the connections between the new ways of thinking and working that the organization has implemented and its ongoing success. Describe these links, celebrate the new behaviors, and keep telling the story of success to give positive change the best chance of becoming the new institutional reality.

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