Change, Kotter and Antimatter

Change, Kotter and Antimatter

[Tl;Dr: Let’s question the validity, applicability and utility of Kotter’s 8 Step Organisational Change Model – we can do better.]

I’ve assiduously read many books by Harvard Business School professor John P. Kotter – including his most prominent title, “Leading Change”. Back in the day, when I saw leadership as “the answer”, much of his writing made a lot of sense to me. The fact that it was “evidence-based” also added to its appeal.

“Kotter developed his change framework by observing transformation efforts in over a hundred businesses.”

~ Nitta et al.

The Kotter Model

For ease of reference, here’s one version of Kotter’s (1995) “Eight Steps to Transforming an Organization”:

  1. Establishing a sense of urgency
      • Examining market and competitive realities
      • Identifying and discussing crises, potential crises, or major opportunities
  2. Forming a powerful guiding coalition
      • Assembling a group with enough power to lead the change effort
      • Encouraging the group to work together as a team
  3. Creating a vision
      • Creating a vision to help direct the change effort
      • Developing strategies for achieving that vision
  4. Communicating the vision
      • Using every vehicle possible to communicate the new vision and strategies
      • Teaching new behaviors by the example of the guiding coalition
  5. Empowering others to act on the vision
      • Getting rid of obstacles to change
      • Changing systems or structures that seriously undermine the vision
      • Encouraging risk taking and nontraditional ideas, activities, and actions
  6. Planning for and creating short-term wins
      • Planning for visible performance improvements
      • Creating those improvements
      • Recognising and rewarding employees involved in the improvements
  7. Consolidating improvements and producing still more change
      • Using increased credibility to change systems, structures, and policies that don’t fit the vision
      • Hiring, promoting, and developing new employees who can implement the vision
      • Reinvigorating the process with new projects, themes, and change agents
  8. institutionalising new approaches
      • Articulating connections between the new behaviors and organizational success
      • Developing the means to ensure leadership development and succession

As the ideas of Rightshifting and the Marshall Model have evolved, though, I’ve come to place less and less faith in this 8 Step Model, a.k.a. change framework. And with the emergence of the Antimatter Principle, that faith has just about evaporated entirely.

Personally, the evidence of the successful application of his model – what little I’ve found – seems to point more to successful organisational change being a function of people approaching the challenge deliberately, seeking and applying knowledge, rather than slavishly following a prescribed set of steps.

I accept that failed change initiatives can be dissected – to reveal some contributory omission of one or more steps recommended in the model, or poor implementation of same. I don’t see such post-hoc analyses as endowing the model with the gravitas – or even utility for folks considering change – that it seems to have acquired.

Change in Context

My own interest lies mainly in the transformations described in the Marshall Model. That is, fundamental change in the prevailing collective mindset of an entire organisation. More limited change – even though it may seem far-reaching, such as a “major” restructuring, change of business strategy, or change of market – within one mindset seems less interesting.

Such more limited change offers only limited uplift in organisational performance – with an upper bound of say 10 percent per annum improvement. (And yes, I note with regular chagrin Jerry Weinberg’s First Law of Consulting: “Never promise more than 10% improvement”).

These kinds of “limited” change seem hardly worth the effort, especially when we consider that simple continuous improvement (e.g. kaizen, evolution) can offer the same kind of gains, without all the angst and brouhaha implicit in “big-bang” organisational change initiatives. Better, surely, to punt for the 100 percent plus per annum performance gains offered by changing mindset – that is, if one is “going all-in”?

The Psychologies of Organisations

The most common criticism widely levelled at Kotter’s change model is its top-down nature. By which I mean, the change initiative is conceived at the top of the organisation, and then “pushed” down from the top into the middle and then lower tiers of the classic organisation pyramid (left-hand pyramid, below):

Diagram of two leadership models

This approach may have some merit in “Analytic” minded organisations, where folks expect the higher-ups to dictate the structures, policies, etc., of the whole organisation. Although, even here, the nature of this “pushed” change, combined with the dysfunctional implications of “power-over” structures, hierarchy in general, and e.g. a prevailing Theory X orientation, means that any such top-down change is already on thin ice before it even starts.

But for the other kinds of mindset illustrated in the Marshall Model, Kotter’s model seem to lack relevance (cf Dreyfus, but for the organisation as a whole):

  • Ad-hoc minded organisations are unlikely to accept any kind of structured approach to change.
  • Synergistic organisations are unlikely to accept top-down change “pushed” onto people without consultation or meaningful participation.
  • Chaordic organisations are unlikely to want to take the extended length of time to implement change that’s implied by Kotter’s model.
  • And organisations “in transition” generally, are unlikely to realise what’s happening to them (absent familiarity with the Marshall Model) and attempt solutions unsuited to shifting their collective mindset (as the Kotter model has very limited applicability or utility in these situations, not least because it lacks any broad psychological or sociological underpinnings).

Attending To Folks’ Needs

Actually, there’s is a way to interpret the Kotter Model in harmony with the Antimatter Principle: If we establish the organisation itself as an equal stakeholder in things, and include its needs in the needs we’re all attending to, then we might begin to see how we can satisfy the various elements of Kotter’s Model:

  1. Establishing a sense of urgency
    • If the organisation urgently needs to change, and folks understand that, everyone may be willing to attend to the issue.
  2. Forming a powerful guiding coalition
    • By attending to everyone’s needs, we build the broadest-based and most powerful (motivated) coalition possible.
  3. Creating a vision
    • The vision, of course, includes everyone’s needs. Everyone gets to participate.
  4. Communicating the vision
    • Because everyone has been involved in step 3 (creating the vision), communicating it becomes much less of an issue.
  5. Empowering others to act on the vision
    • No empowerment necessary – it’s built in, because it’s everyone’s vision.
  6. Planning for and creating short-term wins
    • Whose needs come first? How do we spread the joy inherent in meeting folks’ needs?
  7. Consolidating improvements and producing still more change
    • The Antimatter principle is self-reinforcing.
  8. institutionalising new approaches
    • When the Antimatter Principle reaches a certain threshold, the organisation has “institutionalised” its new approach.


I hope this post has gone some way to answering those many twitter requests I’ve had this week about my position on Kotter and his model. Would you be willing to provide feedback in the form of e.g. a comment, below, about the extent to which this post has met – or failed to meet – your needs?

– Bob

  1. This is all vague, to me.

    When we all participate in building the vision, it does not often work well in a huge meeting. Even meetings of only a dozen people often suffer from interpersonal flaws, power differences among the participants, groupthink, and ridicule of some contributions. I think there are large advantages in the A3 process at Toyota as discussed in John Shook’s book about it.

    Surely there are a great many other aspects of how best for people to collaborate in forming and executing a great vision for any organization. If you wish to, you can cover each of them as another aspect of the antimatter principle.

    Oh, and gathering a nanogram of neutrinos seems impossible, making a gram of antimatter cheap by comparison.

  2. Bob, first off, love the blog, adding it to my blog roll. Completely agree with the Rightshifting principles.

    As far as change, keep in mind, Kotter is an academic. It makes for great writing, but still needs work and interpretation to implement.

    It is of course, a great summary of a post-mortem, but can also be used at a high level to plan the change and link it to strategy.

    You hit on the key point of course. As written, it does not seem to involve what I would call the change targets, those effected most by the change. Management does have to set the course, think steps 1-3, but the rest of the organization has to be equal partners in the remaining steps, or the plan is sure to fail. It involves what I call “turning the change targets into change partners”.

    In my experience, the management team may know the destination, but rarely knows how to get there. That is the execution gap. It takes those doing the work on a daily basis to figure out how to get there.

    To steal one of your concepts: make the feedback loop short. This can be done regardless of the size of the organization, i.e. no one is too big to tackle things in small pieces more often.

    Keep up the great writing!

  3. Great post as usual – in my ignorance I knew nothing of the Kotter model, but before I got to your part, it looked all too familiar… When layed out like that, the thing that struck me is that Steps 1-4 are done by the usual “elites” who are really the only ones that know what to do 😉 By the time you get to Steps 5+ although there is talk about empowering people etc… I thought – “How can you do that? You’ve had people dis-empowered for the first 4 steps and now you suddenly want their buy-in???”. It’s a severe impedance mismatch / step function input to a system, which is why it doesn’t work – poor people.

    Overall, the thing that struck me about the Anti-Kotter Model is that it you’ve included “the people” (i.e. everyone) from the get-go which makes it all so simple The trick seems to be in Step 1 “If the organisation urgently needs to change, and _folks_understand_that_”. Wow, that’s such a biggie for so many organisations, especially when so few people are engaged.

    I’m also wondering if it’s more than “understanding”, which sounds a bit rational whereas I’d imagine it would be a deeper experience. Not just feeling, empathising, … connection? I don’t know the word but hopefully you get the drift. The great bit here is that obviously there is no impedance mismatch / step shock to the system as everyone has been there all along 🙂

    • Yes, more than “understand”. I’d say “understand AND want to attend to the organisation’s needs”. Which probably means that it’s not going to happen unless the “organisation” is equally attending to *their* needs (cf. mutuality, fairness).

      – Bob

  4. Great post Bob!
    I sort of agree. Honestly I don’t think either approach really works everywhere. Every organization is different. Some have problems with leadership being autocratic/authoritarian (as opposed to authoritative) and others don’t.
    If you are trying to see change happen in a large, I mean large, 10’s of 1,000s of people, the Marshall Model doesn’t really scale. At least not as it is described here.
    Here is a phrase I got from Mike Orzen in his book Lean IT. “Bottom up, Top enabled” I think this is the best model.
    I firmly believe that organizations need leaders, they just don’t need to be authoritarian. It is a leaders job to set the vision for the organism that they lead, and set parameters within which freedom is exercised by the members.
    My favorite illustration is Martian Luther King, Jr. We see in his I Have A Dream speech, where he sets the vision, “I have a dream that one day this great nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal” Vision. He also set the parameters for the movement, “non-violent civil disobedience” but beyond that the people were free to exercise their judgement in keeping with the vision and parameters.
    It isn’t perfect but I think it works well in many situations. I think it is close to your plan but still sees the value of leaders, not totally egalitarian.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: