Leading change – why transformation efforts fail
Harvard Business Review published an article, by management thought leader John Kotter, of the same title back in 1995. The mid-nineties was a more innocent era. Google and Facebook had yet to be conceived. Netflix and Amazon were in nappies.
The thrust of the HBR article was on the management errors that were likely to thwart successful transformation. With the benefit of hindsight, here are my thoughts on this documented advice:
Error #1: Not Establishing a Great Enough Sense of Urgency
This remains very relevant today. Despite the digital and biological tsunamis we have faced, there are some leaders who are clinging to their factory model. They believe that sprinkling it with some sort of magical future-proofing tech will suffice. Think 4IR.
Error #2: Not Creating a Powerful Enough Guiding Coalition
Very true. A pumped-up CEO with some vaguely enthusiastic generals is not the pre-condition for transformational success. Kotter recognises that this coalition needs to embrace the employees, but his focus is on ensuring the management are aligned.
Error #3: Lacking a Vision
A vision, particularly a multi-year vision, was popular back then. However it required a high degree of market stability and thus predictability. This is no longer the case. The vision today is to simply stay in play (the infinite game). That’s it.
Error #4: Undercommunicating the Vision by a Factor of Ten
This feels like a corollary of error #2. And the advice tends to suggest that communications are less about seeking input from the workforce and more about briefing them for the mission. He nails the issue of leaders saying one thing but acting antithetically. Today some leaders talk about the need to be innovative, but at the same time frown on wasteful experimentation and ‘failure’.
Error #5: Not Removing Obstacles to the New Vision
Kotter focuses on internal and thus controllable obstacles. Today there is an abundance of external forces looking to thwart our strategic intentions. These include battles for global hegemony, natural resources and talent. Exponential technological growth, including the Internet and global supply chains have effectively turned the market into a three-dimensional pinball machine. Vision, like careers, weekends and retirement, is destined for the industrial era glossary archive.
Error #6: Not Systematically Planning For and Creating Short-Term Wins
This is critical in today’s environment. In fact, planning long-term wins is reckless given the unknowability of the future. Modern day transformation is a real-time exercise in high velocity micro-victories.
Error #7: Declaring Victory Too Soon
Back then, I think change and transformation were considered as similar activities. Transformation being seen as perhaps radical change. Both were perceived as projects or programmes. As mentioned, transformation today is more an operating model. By all means celebrate the micro-victories, but it would be foolhardy to ever believe that your organisation has moved into some sort of steady state, where leaders can switch to ‘cruise control’.
Error #8: Not Anchoring Changes in the Corporation’s Culture
This is imperative. Kotter focuses on management. Such is the nature of the top-down command and control industrial era structure that management have total control over the cultural levers. So weakening management resolve with respect to the transformation will certainly lead to corporate reversion.
But culture is not what it was. The world has changed and culture is becoming less controllable. This is being driven in part by the power axis shifting from the employer to the employee and in part because of the blurring of the boundary between the organisation and the market. Gig working, partnering, outsourcing and even crowdsourcing all have a dilutive effect on culture.
Kotter’s guidance was very powerful back in the nineties. The clock-speed of business has naturally accelerated in the last few decades and that coupled with what might be termed ‘macro-environmental force interplay’ has taken us into a very chaotic world. Nonetheless his underlying principles remain true.
My post is less a review of John Kotter’s management theories and more a reflection on how the world has changed. My concern is that leaders of a certain vintage have not quite woken up to how the world is changing. Consequently, a transition from corporate asset to liability will likely be extent of their career transformational journey. Unfortunately this also has consequences for their organisations and society at large.