Make Change Stick
Leading Change

Make Change Stick

Bestselling management guru and Harvard Business School professor John P. Kotter details how to initiate change and make it endure.

The cover of professor John P. Kotter’s book shows penguins shuffling on a precipice as one brave bird leaps into the water. In too many organizations, Kotter says, executives shy away from the precipice while someone lower in the pecking order jumps.

Whenever human communities are forced to adjust to shifting conditions, pain is ever present. But a significant amount of the waste and anguish we’ve witnessed in the past decade is avoidable.John P Kotter

To this point, Kotter explains that managers tend to think in linear, risk-limiting ways. Transformational change, he insists, can occur only when a coalition of leaders creates a sense of urgency.

Kotter is a best-selling author and frequent speaker on management who became a tenured professor at the Harvard Business School at age 33. His advice in this book – notable as one of Time’s Most Influential Business Management Books – will seem familiar to managers who’ve watched change initiatives begin with a marching band and end a few months later being silently ushered out the back door. Kotter helps you understand why your latest change initiative froze up and how to make the next one fly.

“The Change Problem”

Kotter cites change initiatives – Total Quality Management, Six Sigma, Balanced Scorecard, re-engineering, downsizing, outsourcing, re-strategizing, cultural renewal, and more – that have benefited some companies and ended up as colossal flops at others. 

By far the biggest mistake people make when trying to change organizations is to plunge ahead without establishing a high enough sense of urgency in fellow managers and employees.John P. Kotter 

The author posits that eight common strategic errors doom such initiatives: being complacent, lacking a powerful guiding coalition, failing to vest in the vision, failing to communicate the vision with sufficient fervor or frequency, letting obstacles block your vision, failing to create short-term wins, declaring victory too soon and neglecting to anchor change in the corporate culture.


To set the stage for transformation, Kotter asserts that everyone involved must understand that the old way of doing business isn’t viable anymore. Actions that require urgency, he explains, are not “feel good” steps. They have to achieve your goal of increasing your workforce’s sense of urgency so that people accept transformation. To instill urgency, Kotter suggests, raise your standards; fix flawed metrics and link executive pay to strategic measures.

To leverage the urgency for change, leaders must build a broad coalition of executives who can articulate their vision and stymie passive resistance. The biggest mistake you can make, Kotter states, is to “go it alone” as an isolated CEO.

Many times, he notes, the guiding techniques behind a transformation attempt are authoritarian decrees and micromanagement. Autocracy doesn’t work. In contrast, a well-articulated, inspiring vision can clear away distractions and align the resources of the organization with its ultimate goals. Kotter repeats that a compelling vision helps employees understand that transformation is in their long-range best interests.

People who are making an effort to embrace the future are a happier lot than those who are clinging to the past.John P. Kotter

Under-communication and mixed-messages, Kotter observes, inflict damage. He urges you to recognize that most people need to hear something several times to absorb its meaning and that two-way communication is vital. Employees also need encouragement to remove the barriers to transformation, including bureaucratic barricades, inadequate skills, faulty organizational systems and negative supervisors who discourage action.

Kotter reveals that short-term wins can prove you’ve attained a goal. They show doubters that the change is not hype and that employees’ sacrifices are worthwhile. Culture, Kotter states counterintuitively, is usually the last thing to change. To anchor change in your culture, you need patience and persistence. He notes with regret that sometimes the only way to get people to change their ways is to hire their replacements.

Suggestions That Work

John P. Kotter sets out, like myriad business academics before him, to write a practical manual for those attempting transformation in the real world, not in academe. Many of these books straddle a disconnect, since academics either treat people as theoretical entities – and thus, predictable – or propose a rigid process that no human being would ever embrace. Kotter avoids both errors.

As his six bestsellers suggest, businesspeople happily pay for his suggestions because his ideas work, he offers a wide range of possible practical behaviors, and he never fails to include the messy human factor in his prescriptions for corporate action.

A globalized economy is creating both more hazards and more opportunities for everyone, forcing firms to make dramatic improvements not only to compete and prosper but also to merely survive.John P. Kottter

However, this guide’s brevity leaves little room for discussion of how managers can develop leadership attributes. Kotter’s approach demands addressing powerful forces in an organization, but it seems to lack the personal coaching new leaders need to handle the fallout from challenging sacred cows – as Kotter urges transformational leaders to do. While contending that forward-looking companies require their leaders to articulate a vision of the future and to empower their staff members to fulfill it amid shifting realities, Kotter remains a shade sketchy on how to fill that visionary role.

A Checklist for Change

Nonetheless, this manual proves a useful checklist for preparing for corporate change or assessing the pitfalls of a previous effort and deciding how to move ahead. Kotter believes in the necessity of taking chances and exercising willpower – often pure will applied to difficult tasks – but always leavened with good judgment and an understanding that change requires living with uncertainty.

Those who attempt to create major change with simple, linear, analytical processes almost always fail. John P. Kotter

Kotter writes with clarity and brevity. You won’t confuse which points he regards as important versus minor. That is a big help for the first-time reader who might take notes or wonder what warrants the most attention. Kotter makes his priorities plain.

This prolific – to say the least – author offers a shelf of other, useful and helpful books, including: XLR8 (Accelerate), Our Iceberg Is Melting, A Sense of UrgencyThe Heart of Change and That’s Not How We Do It Here, among others.

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