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Time for a new approach to change.
on 3 March 2003
Being a professional business change specialist I approached “Leading Change” with great anticipation. Kotter is a famous writer, speaker and practitioner, the book was published by Harvard Business School and is praised very highly by many business leaders. So I was eager to discover new ideas, to broaden my horizons, to learn new skills. Unfortunately, I have been rather disappointed.
It is difficult to argue against Kotter’s views that in order to implement a major change one needs to create a sense of urgency for it, assemble a guiding coalition of powerful enough people to lead it, have a vision and strategy and communicate it well, frequently and to everybody, get rid of structural, cultural and system obstacles, consolidate gains on the way to facilitate further changes and ensure the changes are well anchored in the company’s culture and structures. But these are all well known, common sense ideas which have been tried before and yet so many change efforts still fail.
The problem is that Kotter, like almost everybody else, subscribes to the classic change management perspective where business change is seen as a gigantic, complex, difficult and lengthy one-off effort to move a company from where it is to some future state desired by its management board. As usual there is the scenario of everybody working hard and long hours and making sacrifices in the lengthy battle with status quo after which a state of corporate happiness will be achieved. Only to be followed, in time, by another Herculean one-off change effort. The major difference in Kotter’s book is the emphasis on leadership versus management. This must be ambrosia to the top executives - glamour can be intoxicating.
But as Kotter himself noticed, the rate of change is not slowing down, it is accelerating. So by the time the company has implemented this massive change and set it firmly in its culture and structures so that no gradual return to previous status quo is possible, the world around would have changed so much that this wonderful transition becomes largely irrelevant. Even the most humble of the employees will notice that and their enthusiasm and willingness for more sacrifices the next time round will be proportional to the relevance and real success of the previous effort.
In order to really be a winner in a volatile environment we need to make a fundamental shift in the way we perceive change: away from a series of discrete and sequential intrusions on ‘business as usual’ (the unfreeze – freeze model) to a multitude of ongoing, parallel and continuous processes (unified business change model). This is why standard programme management techniques even coupled with the inspiration of vision and strong leadership, the direction of strategy and powerful coalitions, the sustenance of short terms wins, etc. will never be sufficient to successfully control change. We need to move towards the unified business change model, i.e. operate a set of permanent processes specifically designed to manage any type and number of concurrent business changes and operate them like any other business processes. The vision and leadership are absolute imperatives but so are the day to day assessments of impacts and overlaps, the not so glamorous management and administration of multiple interdependent change initiatives. The world of changes will always, by its nature be, complex and full of interdependencies but we can make it visible so that the decisions will be well informed and all risks well understood.