Change Leadership II- Understanding Kotter

“Time is the friend of the wonderful business, the enemy of the mediocre.” Warren Buffett

Buffett reminds us, and we should never forget, the reason we change over time is to deliver better business outcomes, to build business capability more in line with competitive needs, and to be the wonderful business.  Also, with the increasing dynamism we all face in the marketplace, we must build a superior capability to improve and to respond quickly to change.

John P. Kotter has been building to his most recent crescendo of “how to” lead change since at least 19901.  And, since his thinking is now even more closely aligned with the work and positions we have been advocating and practicing with clients and colleagues for the last 20 years, we think a quick look back and a snapshot of Kotter’s current philosophy is worth exploring.


Let’s start with a simple analogy:
John P. Kotter is to change leadership as Michael E. Porter is to strategy.  And, here are a few examples of how (in addition to both being chaired professors at the Harvard Business School)

  • Both have rigorously researched their areas of expertise and published their findings targeted at the implications for general management
  • Both have developed simplifying frameworks2 and 3, now recognized as seminal works in their respective fields, for use by general management practitioners
  • Both continue to be recognized for their advocacy in their areas of focus, for how they continue to refine their trade, and for how they continue to apply their thinking general management in multiple industries

Foundational View
Over the last couple of years, we have noticed Kotter beginning to pull together his thinking on leadership with his work in the area of change.  For example, let’s start with some of Kotter’s views of what managers and leaders do.

(left side; traditional hierarchical structure/system)
(right side; network structure/system)
  • Coping with complexity
  • Organizing staff
  • Controlling and problem solving
  • Planning and budgeting (deductive)
  • Coping with change
  • Aligning people
  • Motivating and inspiring
  • Setting direction (inductive)

And, recall Kotter’s 8 stage process for creating major change2

1. Establishing a sense of urgency
2. Creating a guiding coalition
3. Developing a vision and strategy
4. Communicating the change vision
5. Empowering broad-based action
6. Generating short-term wins
7. Consolidating gains and producing more change
8. Anchoring new approaches in the culture

We have always seen a close linkage between Kotter’s 8 step model and the primary mental change model we have advocated for since the early 1990’s- The change formula.  Both begin at the same point: High focus on the “need for change”/”sense of urgency”.

As Kotter has worked with more companies, he has come to realize transformation programs require an overlay or shadow organization structure of their very own.  Better than our moniker of a change management office (or Business/Strategy PMO), Professor Kotter has most recently, and elegantly, defined an analogy for the necessary structures, processes and management practices: Two operating systems for the enterprise4.

Dual Operating Systems
Let’s spend a bit of time with Kotter’s two operating systems which are now the primary engines of his change leadership thinking 4, 5, 6 and 7.  First, we should recognize he is tying the need for management to the efficient, traditional structure of hierarchy.  This traditional hierarchy (the left side, the left brain) is what we think of as modern management- birthed for the railroads (late 1800’s), scaled for mass production (early 1900’s), refined and exported (1960-70’s), automated and off-shored (late 1900’s, early 2000’s) (For a more rigorous treatment of the modern management “s” curve click here).  Thanks in part to our own exporting and off-shoring of management principles, we are now realizing an increased the level of competition and increased velocity of change in the global environment.  All of this increasing speed-of-change requires high-levels of flexibility to compete (For example, see our treatment of the emerging dimension of social capabilities click here).  Kotter’s solution to deal with these new capability requirements linked hand-in-glove with rapid change- the creative, network organization (the right side, the right brain).

Kotter then layers in a metaphor for the networked organization- one with the guiding coalition focused with the intensity of the sun on the single big opportunity (urgency/need for change). Supporting the big idea are planets (projects/initiatives) each with their own moons (sub-projects/sub-initiatives).  We all know what is required for the traditional, hierarchical organization.  Kotter posits what is most important for the networked operating system is strong leadership (see table above) supported through processes and management routines.

The eight accelerators of change
Kotter has recast the 8 steps/stages of transformation into accelerators (with somewhat different wording), and in one fell swoop de-emphasizing the rigid sequencing required (stage 1 to stage 8) from his previous writings.

The rise of the volunteer/Tapping the cognitive surplus
Here is where we get most excited about how Kotter has coalesced his thinking- around getting employees of an organization to volunteer- to unlock what Shirky8 refers to as the cognitive surplus.  (We work through the idea of cognitive surplus in a previous post click here)  The way we see this heading, is to a future of more transparent, more social enterprise, one in which Kotter focused his 5 principles7 for the networked operating system.

  • Has more change agents, is more inclusive
  • Employees “want to” and “get to”
  • Is focused on the head and the heart9
  • Leadership over management
  • Two systems, one organization

Key takeaways
There are a number of areas we could focus on (Kotter has 18 books noted in his HBS profile).  The following are our favorites at this point in time in our aspiration of helping our clients become and remain a “wonderful company”.

Increased emphasis on enduring need for change requires an additional organizational overlay- a network– to complement the traditional organization.

The dual operating system is a capability you can begin to embed in your organization today.

The center of the network, the first element of the change equation- need for change/big opportunity– is the raison d’être for the networked operating system; the networked operating system allows us to respond to these strategic needs quickly.

Volunteers, organizational slack, of up to 10% of our organization’s human resources can be tapped to fuel this social network work within the enterprise.

As a closing point, as we always remind our clients… Change occurs one person at a time


End Notes and References (This list includes an abridged listing of Professor Kotter’s work)

1 See John P. Kotter, What Leaders Really Do (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1999) Chapter 3, pp 51-73 (Footnote: First appeared in the May-June 1990 [issue of the] Harvard Business Review)
2 See John P. Kotter, Leading Change (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1996) p. 21, exhibit 2, “The 8-stage process of creating major change.” (Footnote: Adapted from John P. Kotter, “Why transformation efforts fail,” Harvard Business Review (March-April 1995): 61.)
3 See Michael E. Porter, Competitive Strategy, Techniques for analyzing industries and competitors (NY: The Free Press, 1980) p 4, exhibit 1-1, “Forces Driving Industry Competition.”
4 See John P. Kotter, “Hierarchy and Network: Two Structures, One Organization” [Internet]. Boston: HBR Blog Network. May 23, 2011 [cited November 5, 2012]. Available from
5 See “Accelerate! How the most innovative companies capitalize on today’s rapid-fire strategic challenges- and still make their numbers,” Harvard Business Review (November 2012)
6 From John P. Kotter, “Accelerating Change, Based on the work of John P. Kotter” [File name: 9467TL-PPT-ENG.PPT]. Harvard Business Review (October 18, 2012).
7 From John P. Kotter, “A Revolutionary Approach to Strategic Change” [Internet screenshot]. Boston: HBR Webinar. November 1, 2012.
8 See Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus, Creativity and generosity in a connected age (NY: The Penguin Press, 2010).  A portion of the untapped potential can be available for our work life, for many of the same reasons Shirky sees applying some of our free time to the greater good, primarily through networked communities.
9 See Heath and Heath, Switch, How to change things when change is hard (NY: Broadway Books, 2010).  Chip and Dan Heath use a strong head and heart metaphor with the rider (head) and the elephant (heart) on how to drive transformational change.  Additionally, their 3 part- 9 element framework, p 259, addresses the head (rationale/vision of future), the heart (need for change) and the path (steps to get there) linking back to our favorite mental model for change, The Change Formula.


Special thanks to our colleague Leigh Trescot for sharing the picture of the penguin.


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2 Responses

    See Prof Kotter talk about his work in progress book in a 6 minute video “Accelerate! The Evolution of the 21st Century Organization” The focus of this short video is on the combined organization structure of traditional and agile from the interesting perspective of looking at the evolution of an organization.

  2. tom reeder says:

    McKinsey published findings of one of their surveys in September 2015, “The science of organizational transformations,” by Tessa Basford, Bill Schaninger, Ellen Viruleg, et al.

    A primary development from the survey was creation of an “Influence Model,” focused on changing individual mind-set and behavior (foundational element of change- “one person at a time”.) The four components of the influence model include:
    – Role Modeling
    – Fostering understanding and conviction
    – Reinforcing change through formal mechanisms
    – Developing talent and skills
    Use of all four components within a program raised transformational success (success defined as performance and long-term capability) to 74% (an 8X’s success rate using all four versus using any one). If none of the components are evident in a program, McKinsey found a 20% success rate.

    We feel these components are characteristics of the change formula (see above), and can also be easily mapped into Kotter’s 8 stages. Further, we do not believe the components of McKinsey’s influence model are by themselves sufficient, nor comprehensive for change leadership.

    Other findings of McKinsey’s survey include
    Initiative Characteristics
    – Comprehensive
    – Complementary
    – Context
    – Completely new initiatives provided more than 2x’s success (64%) of retreaded initiatives from previous programs success (31%)
    – Both and portfolio seemed to perform better than just performance or longer-term capabilities alone
    – A rigorous process including prioritization of initiatives added to expected success
    – Involvement of a broader organizational involvement also confirmed our historic approach to transformational success

    A good read and certainly relevant tactics supported by McKinsey’s survey analytics. Particularly when added to the Kotter 8 accelerators.

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