8 steps to accelerate change in your organization (Kotter, 2018)

I’ve been thinking a lot about driving change recently (especially in the context of the “leading educational change” course by iEarth and BioCEED), and found the Kotter Inc. website on the topic super helpful. They provide a free e-book on the “8 steps to accelerate change in your organization” which I want to summarise here.

The 8 “accelerated” steps build on a previous version from 1996. The old version of leading change was about discrete, finite projects that were dealt with in a systematic, linear way, by a small group within a hierarchy. The new version, however, is about dynamically addressing changes when opportunities open up while continuously working towards change, using a broad coalition of people throughout the organisation as well as the traditional hierarchy.

Four change principles

It is worth keeping in mind four change principles that support the change process:

  1. Leadership + Management: The change process needs a group of people taking on responsibility for it and managing the efforts, as well as providing the vision and positive reinforcement
  2. Head + Heart: Logic alone is usually not enough to inspire action, but if people are involved emotionally and see a worthy goal that they can contribute to, they are often willing to invest a lot of time and energy
  3. Select Few + Diverse Many: Change does not only need to happen top-down, but a change process should open up opportunities to contribute to change to everybody who wants to be involved, and this might reveal to date unknown potential for change
  4. “Have to” + “want to”: If the goal seems meaningful and people feel genuinely included in the process, they will want to contribute beyond their role as defined by their job description

Keeping in mind these four principles, there are 8 steps to the change process as described by Kotter.

8 steps to accelerate change in your organisation

1. Create a sense of urgency

People are a lot more likely to come together and put in a lot of effort if there is an opportunity opening up now, that will not be there forever. Creating this perceived urgency to change things before a window of opportunity might close again helps get people together and willing to act now.

What does this mean for our own change project?

  • We need to be able to identify an opportunity that can be used to create such urgency when it opens up. How would we recognise it if it appeared, what kinds of criteria are we looking for?
  • We need to be able to communicate that THIS is THE OPPORTUNITY. And for that, we need a plan.
  • We need to have a realistic idea of the change we want to create. What would be the impact if all went well, and what would be worse case scenarios?

2. Build a guiding coalition

The idea behind the guiding coalition to drive change is that if the coalition consists of the classical team that would always be assigned to lead change, the results are very likely the same as they’ve been up to that point (i.e. not fundamentally challenging the status quo). Therefore, it makes sense to assemble a team that is diverse on all metrics, but especially from different functions within the organisation, including all geographic locations of the organisation, etc.. But everybody has to be willing to actually work in a team that is built across hierarchies and functions, and needs to be committed to the common goal.

3. Form a strategic vision and initiatives

A strategic vision and initiatives is what other people might call a theory of change: How will the changed future be better from where we are now? How will we get there; i.e. where exactly are we now, what are initiatives that need to happen, how will we get people to support and adopt the change, how will we know that change is happening, …?

4. Enlist a volunteer army

We need a critical mass of people supporting the change initiative. That means, we need to invite and inspire people to take part, but then also give them the agency to become part of the change in whatever way they decide. 15% of people involved in an organisation are enough to get a change process going, 50% are needed for the change “to stick”. But recruiting and inspiring once is not enough — we also need to look after our volunteers and make sure they stay motivated and engaged and receive recognition for their work.

Kotter also writes that no outsiders need to be bought in, “the existing people hold the energy”, which I found really interesting.

5. Enable actions by removing barriers

Historical structures can effectively prevent change, so breaking up old structures that are no longer serving a purpose might be a good step towards enabling change.

Barriers that need to be removed can be found by considering why previous change attempts failed. Were decisions made by the wrong people, were people sticking to beliefs that weren’t helpful (“this is just not going to work in our context”), were procedures slowing things down so much that people gave up, was support from the leadership missing, …?

6. Generate short-term wins

Anything moving us towards the final goal is a win — an action that has been taken, a lesson that is learned, a new product that is created, something that happened in a different way than it always did. And if we can recognise and communicate wins, we can use this to sustain momentum over a longer period of time by motivating all our volunteers, and to create a narrative of how the change happened.

And we can also plan for those wins in advance, and how we’ll use them to generate momentum or show change happening across the organisation etc.

7. Sustain acceleration

When you see things beginning to move, don’t relax. Now is the time to press even harder, because clearly what you did is working! If you slow down now and then don’t reach the goal, it is going to be a lot harder to motivate people a second time, seeing that the efforts “failed” the first time round… So remind yourself (and everybody else) about the goal and why it’s urgent to take action now, and if you started out with some sort of campaign to create urgency, maybe it would be a great time to bring it back, to re-energize the existing team and to recruit more members, that will come with new energy and a fresh perspective on things.

8. Institute change

Now that we have changed something within our organisation, we need to make sure that people stick to this “new normal” and don’t fall back into old routines or practices. Therefore, we need to create the narrative, supported and disseminated by leadership, relating the way things are now to the organisation’s current and future success, and for management to set in place a framework that supports this new way of being (i.e. creating the “barriers” against unwanted change that we tore down in step 5 ;-)).

All of this might change parts of the organisational structure, but it won’t overthrow hierarchies but rather work with them to create the change we want.


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