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Continuous improvement is a cornerstone of contemporary quality. While everyone usually embraces the theory, the practice can be a problem. Improving some aspect of performance means doing something different, which means some sort of change. And change is the object of long-standing organization and individual resistance.

John Kotter, the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership at the Harvard Business School, has developed a model for leading change that offers a valuable tool to quality professionals. His model is a result of many years' of experience in consulting with hundreds of organizations. He observed the myriad difficulties associated with change efforts, distilled the common themes, and turned them around into a prescriptive framework.

But first, a little background. This difficulty with change is nothing new. In 513 B.C., Heraclitus of Greece observed, "There is nothing permanent except change." And in the 16th century, Niccolo Machiavelli stated in his political treatise, The Prince, "There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things."

The challenge today is that change is not an "engineering" problem. Change involves people and can call up emotions, uncertainties, inconsistencies, and matters of free will. Because of this, managing change is simply not sufficient. Leadership is necessary. The old saying "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink" provides good advice though slightly off the mark. It might be better stated, "You can manage a horse to water, but you must lead him to drink." Getting the horse to the water is a control issue that can be managed. Getting the horse to drink is a behavior issue that demands leadership.

When dealing with people and change, American social psychologist Kurt Lewin observed during the 1940s that a successful change includes three progressive steps:

  • Unfreezing the present level of performance
  • Moving to a new level
  • Freezing group life at the new level

Lewin also stated, "To break open the shell of complacency and self-righteousness, it is sometimes necessary to bring about deliberately an emotional stir-up."

Kotter's model suggests a similar three-part framework:

  • Defrost the status quo.
  • Take actions that bring about change.
  • Anchor the changes in the corporate culture.

The first phase, "defrost the status quo," consists of four essential steps. First, leaders must establish a sense of urgency. People must have a reason, and a really good one at that, for doing something different. Leaders should examine market or competitive realities and identify an urgent need in terms of a crisis, potential crisis, or great opportunity. This is not a sky-is-falling scare tactic. It is a necessary step to jolt people out of complacency-to make them believe that the current situation is more dangerous than leaping into the unknown. This is a critical first step. In Kotter's experience, 50% of change efforts fail right here. His studies further suggest that about 75% of the work force must accept the "urgency" if the overall effort is to succeed.

The second step is to form a guiding coalition. Change cannot be directed through the existing hierarchy. It must be nurtured and supported by a dedicated group of influential leaders throughout the organization. The group may be small or large. It will probably not include the complete corporate leadership because of some reluctance to buy in. But it must be influential in order to lead the change. Without sufficient influence and power, the group will lead only apparent change. Over time, opposition forces will gain strength and snuff out the effort.

Third, leaders must create a vision. Once people accept the urgency, they want to know where they are going-they want a clear direction to a better future. Without a vision, the change effort can dissolve into a series of incompatible projects that start to look like change for change's sake. Failed change efforts are often littered with plans and directives but no codifying vision. The vision must be clear and concise. It's not much good if it makes great copy, but nobody can understand it. Kotter suggests that leaders should be able to communicate the vision in five minutes and elicit understanding and interest. If not, they should rework the vision.

The fourth step, previewed just above, is to communicate the vision. The best vision in the world has no value if it's a big secret. Communication is more than a corporate announcement or a notice posted on the bulletin board. Leaders must communicate the vision through their actions. Sure, all the typical communication media play a part. But leaders must make opportunities to communicate the vision in day-to-day activities. For example, when presenting an award, a leader should take a moment to explain how the employee's performance fits into the vision and how the performance is a contribution to something much larger than the act being rewarded. More important, the day-to-day actions of leaders must reflect the vision. Nothing will kill a change effort quicker than leaders saying one thing and doing another.

Kotter cautions that a results-oriented leader may feel like skipping one or more of these first four steps in order to get right to the action. Doing so imperils, perhaps even condemns, the change effort. Without the solid foundation established by all these steps, any change action is unlikely to take hold and survive for the long term.

The second phase in the model, the action phase, includes three steps. The first step is to empower others to act on the vision. Leaders must clear the way for employees to develop new ideas and approaches without being stymied by the old ways. The guiding coalition must remove obstacles that may be entrenched in organization processes, or exist only in the minds of employees. Both can be showstoppers. Kotter warns that worst of all can be the bosses who will not change and who make demands contrary to the vision. Such people should be given the opportunity to get on board and embrace the vision. Those who will not…well, a corporate turn-around expert once observed, "Sometimes you gotta change the people, or you gotta change the people."

The second action step is to plan for and create short-term wins. People will not follow a vision forever. Employees must see results within 12 to 24 months, or they will give up or perhaps even join the naysayers. Short-term wins validate the effort and maintain the level of urgency. Leaders may have to look for things that disclose unambiguous benefits of the change effort. Rewarding people responsible for the benefits is essential.

The third step arises from the second: consolidate improvements and produce still more change. Short-term wins can be seductive. It can be easy to declare the battle won based on early benefits. Doing so can be fatal. Premature victory celebrations can quash momentum and allow the forces of tradition to regain their hold. Short-term wins must be stepping-stones to greater opportunities and bigger wins, all consistent with the vision driving the overall effort.

Kotter adds another word of caution that action alone is not enough. Any change, even that undertaken with great effort over an extended time, will wither unless it is reinforced within the organization. Leaders must not stop here; they must follow through with the next phase.

The third and last phase is a single step. Having made effective changes, leaders must now make the changes permanent. The forces of recidivism are still alive and well. Leaders must connect new behavior with corporate success, showing that the new ways are here to stay. Just as important, new leaders in the organization must espouse the new approaches. All that was accomplished can be undone by a change in leadership that bends back to the old ways.

Kotter's model for leading change is summarized below.

Lay the groundwork for change actions. Defrost the status quo.

  • Establish a sense of urgency.
  • Form a powerful guiding coalition.
  • Create a vision.
  • Communicate the vision.

Take action for change.

  • Empower others to act on the vision.
  • Plan for and create short-term wins.
  • Consolidate improvements and produce still more change.

Make the change permanent.

  • Institutionalize new approaches.

Heraclitus, Machiavelli, and many others all had it right. Change is omnipresent, uncertain, and hard. But it is not impossible. Kotter's model for leading change provides a framework that may be applied in any organization at any level. It is a powerful tool for those who must lead their organizations into a better future.

This brief discussion is only an introduction to leading change. More information may be obtained from the sources listed below. Both are available from Harvard Business School Press at

Kotter, John P. Leading Change. Harvard Business School Press. Boston, MA. 1996.

Kotter, John. P. "Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail." Harvard Business Review. March-April 1995.

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