The Eight Steps to Driving Successful Large Scale Change

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Sep 29, 2010

By John P. Kotter and Lorne A. Whitehead

One of us (Kotter) has been studying buy-in within the very specific context of large-scale change projects for nearly two decades. Because of the increasing importance of large-scale organizational change, we feel it necessary to explicitly comment on how the work in this book fits into that context.

Research clearly shows that people, even experienced executives, are not very good at transformational change, or change of any significance. Multiple studies have shown that 70 percent of the time, when significant change is needed, people back away, go into denial, try but fail rather miserably, or stop, exhausted, after achieving half of what they want using twice the budgeted time and money.

Nevertheless, there are cases of organizations changing to exploit big opportunities, and the changes are, by most standards, sensationally successful. And, to our good fortune, in all of those cases, there is a clear pattern of what works. The pattern has eight steps.

Step 1: Increase urgency

It all starts when large numbers of people see a big opportunity and develop a gut-level drive to get up each and every day determined to do something, however small, to help exploit that opportunity. Complacent people shed their complacency. Those who might appear urgent, because their activities are so filled with energy, but who in fact achieve little with their frenetic, anxiety-driven behavior, see the opportunity, start to think optimistically, stop running in circles, and become productive.

Step 2: Build the guiding coalition

With urgency high enough, a strong group of people emerges to guide the change. Within this group are some people who have credibility with others, or have connections to various parts of the organization, or leadership skills, or formal authority, and still more. Because they feel a strong sense of urgency, these people are not forced by anyone to be on a “committee” or “task force.” They want to help. They volunteer to help. And they learn to work together as a team, even if they include subgroups from different parts of the organization or different locations (hence the term coalition).

Step 3: Get the vision right

The guiding coalition becomes the central force in creating a change vision and change strategies. It answers the questions, How would we look different in a few years if we were to successfully grab our biggest opportunity, and what strategies, or strategic initiatives, will get us there? And the coalition members answer those questions well, based on a solid understanding of what is changing around them, what their organization is like, and what they deeply care about.

Step 4: Communicate for buy-in

The coalition, still filled with a sense of urgency, finds ways to communicate the vision and strategies to everyone who needs to hear them, in order to obtain broad based buy-in. Whatever methods needed are identified and used. Communication occurs relentlessly, typically using any channel: meetings, e-mail, papers, one-on-one conversations, posters. When enough people have truly bought in, intellectually and emotionally, the process continues.

Step 5: Empower action

People who buy into a vision look for ways to help the change effort without being instructed. But they almost inevitably run into some obstacles. The obstacles take many, many forms: bosses who haven’t bought in; IT systems not capable of supporting the strategies; lack of the skills needed to make the vision a reality; a lack of training to develop these missing skills. The guiding coalition finds ways to eliminate these obstacles, empowering people to do what they want and what the change effort requires.

Step 6: Create short-term wins

Empowered people, feeling a sense of urgency and guided by the vision and strategies, focus their actions on achieving a continuing series of visible and unambiguous successes, starting as quickly as possible. With visibility to as many people as possible, and with a lack of ambiguity that makes it difficult to argue whether these are real successes on the journey to the vision, skeptics become supporters. Cynics lose their power. Momentum is gained.

Step 7: Keep at it

Early successes, while desirable, also create the danger of complacency. Since a few successes never take you the distance to achieve a vision of significant change, such complacency must be avoided at all costs. In successful large-scale change efforts, that problem is anticipated and effort is directed to keeping urgency up, keeping the wins coming, and never letting up until all the necessary changes have been made. Only when the organization has achieved the change vision, and only after its success is clear to all, does effort shift to the last step.

Step 8: Make change stick

A new order of operating is always fragile at first. Tradition is a powerful force that can pull an organization back to what it has been doing, often for years, and is comfortable with doing. In successful change efforts, work ends only after the changes have been institutionalized to make them stick. Structures, systems, and promotion processes all are set to support the new order. When a changed culture emerges, it provides the ultimate glue. Stability is achieved, and even the gale winds of tradition do not overturn the new organizational behavior.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpt from Buy-In: Saving Your Good Idea from Being Shot Down. Copyright 2010 John P. Kotter and Lorne A. Whitehead. All rights reserved.