Over 20 years ago John P. Kotter came out with his seminal HBR article, “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail”. Now 20 years later it offers yet another interesting insight: how much has the business world really changed? Specifically, are we dealing with the “same old, same old” issues?

For many at that time the article became one of the most impactful few pages influencing the understanding of why sometimes organizational changes succeed and why sometimes they don’t. Kotter identified 8 common “errors” that lead companies to fail at implementing change. (If you want to read the original article, you can follow this link.)

It is instructive to revisit whether companies who struggle with implementing change today just keep repeating the same mistakes as their predecessors did. Or are there new challenges that did not exist back then? Can project managers forget about some dated challenges and focus instead on newer ones that are more relevant to today?

Curiously, the answer is the same as when someone offers me wine at a party: “Do you want white or red?” Answer: “Yes.” Same here…BOTH! Some of the challenges Kotter raises are still just as relevant today. Any organization that stumbles on these today just isn’t learning. Others just are not that relevant any more today, if at all.

The focus of this blog will be on what hasn’t changed all that much. These “errors” are persistent and leaders should continue to be vigilant to avoid them just as much today as they needed to back then. In the words of Jean-Baptiste Karr, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”! (transl: “The more things change, the more they remain the same!”). Here they are:


Error #4: Undercommunicating the Vision by a Factor of Ten

That was a problem back then, and it still is so today. It’s just that today we call it a ‘challenge’. But still, even in today’s social media savvy environment, it takes some convincing to get reluctant managers to communicate frequently and consistently. Why?

The reasons for this reluctance are understandable. Every change impacts at least some people very negatively and nobody wants to be the one to deliver bad news. Furthermore, details are sparse in the beginning and that is when people have the most questions. So it is hard to be forthright when you don’t have much to say. Lastly and very importantly, publicly communicating something has the appearance of taking accountability to some degree. So there is the risk of also looking like the one who is responsible, should it fail.

None-the-less, these understandable reasons should not prevent a communication campaign from being very effective! With a well thought out change management strategy and communication plan, as well as change leadership coaching, change communication should become a high point, not an error.

Error #5: Not Removing Obstacles to the New Vision

The same obstacles that Kotter mentioned continue to appear today. One type includes the obstacles that exist mainly in people’s minds. This is because they are used to, or invested in, the old ways of doing things.

Unfortunately that is simply human nature, seeing obstacles in the face of change, and overcoming this obstacle is, frankly, the core purpose of a good change management program.

Another obstacle that continues to be present involves an organization’s structure, procedures and policies. Actually, most transformation projects are launched trying to tackle these obstacles directly or indirectly.

Doing proper process redesign, job and organizational design, and other project activities, should lead to removing these obstacles.

The most challenging obstacle that Kotter mentioned, and the one that continues to be so today, is when a senior decision maker opposes the new vision. The reason this obstacle is so challenging is because the executive usually supports the vision verbally, but their behaviour does not match their words. To eliminate this obstacle usually requires confrontation, and most management teams tend to avoid intra-team dissent.

But, as the saying goes, you cannot make an omelette without cracking some eggs. Unfortunately in these situations management teams need to decide as to what is more important: their relationships, or the success of the project.

Error #8: Not Anchoring Changes in the Corporation’s Culture

Changing the culture requires more than communication and training. Unfortunately too many projects still start with the assumption that change management is limited to these two areas.

Communication tends to address awareness and knowledge, and training tends to address people’s ability. But they don’t address behaviour and mindset.

To really change culture you need to look at the behaviours you want to change.

What will be more important, for example, being able to effectively respond to crises or being able to plan so that crises become fewer in number? Is it being the best at entering data really quickly, or being able to understand reports from automated data and act on them appropriately? This requires much more than communication and training.

It requires including job design, organizational design, performance management, staff deployment, reward and recognition programs and possibly also compensation and benefits re-evaluation in the change management strategy and plan.

Error #3: Lacking a Vision

In today’s environment the problem is less “Lacking a Vision”, as “Lacking a Consistent Vision”. There has been an improvement, but the same problems still arise because of multiple confusing statements.

Most leaders today have grasped the importance of communicating in clear bullet points or sound bites. The vision also tends to be at a high enough level to apply to the entire organization. It seems that the influence of social media has made most leaders savvier in terms of how to communicate clearly and broadly. However, this is proving insufficient.

The biggest problems arise when the message varies depending on who is delivering it. Employees will hear an announcement, then go to their boss and ask questions. Then their boss will repeat the message, but say something different, even slightly. And that is when the issues start to arise. That is when trust starts to erode.

All of us are attuned to inconsistencies – that is how we identify BS (not the kind you earn in university!). All of us have an understanding that truth is ‘truth’, that it doesn’t vary, and is the same no matter who says it and how. That is our own human nature. It’s part of our survival instinct.

So what becomes most important is to align all leadership around the key points of a vision and says the same thing consistently and repeatedly. They may verbalize it in their own style, but they all say the same thing. Saying “two plus two is four”, is the same truth as “you get four from adding two plus two.” Different style of speaking, but still the same truth.

That is what’s important today, and unlike in Kotter’s day, it should take days, not months, to achieve this.

So, what has changed?

This is the topic for the next blog. Click the link to read more!




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