Change is no longer a discreet organizational development concept: what are the structures, policies, and practices that need changing (mostly from the top) to accomplish our business goals?
Change is emergent: how do we systematically identify the needs, gather the insights, and prepare and empower our people at all levels to make it happen? Emergent change and our ability to respond to it must be cultivated as part of our cultures, core to the people we recruit and hire, intrinsic to how we develop and support our existing people, and strategically aligned with our business model.
Despite this reality, it seems that most of the “best-selling” approaches for leading or managing change make the concept seem formulaic and finite rather than dynamic and perpetual. They make it seem organizational rather than relational. Even as many of these models readily identify change as the only constant in our contemporary business environment, they often present solutions as if it were time bound and discreet.
One of the most popular is the Kotter Change Model, which defines an 8-step process for leading successful change: 1. Create a sense of urgency. 2. Build a powerful coalition. 3. Create a vision for change. 4. Communicate the vision. 5. Empower action by removing barriers. 6. Generate short-term wins. 7. Build on the change. 8. Make it stick.
I don’t actually disagree with any of this and totally understand how such a list makes a powerful product for those who are struggling to lead change. I wonder, however, if those struggling the most to lead change aren’t often the ones who need a deeper understanding of it. Yes, in most cases, you will need to take Kotter’s steps to achieve the change you want, but is that all it takes? I don’t think so.
You know what will kill your change process before you ever take that first step? 1. A lack of trust in leadership. 2. Poor relationships with and among our people. 3. Ineffective communication from the highest level of values and vision down to day-to-day operations.
Let’s consider some basic questions:
- Can a leader who isn’t trusted by his people create a shared sense of urgency with them?
- Can a leader with poor relationship skills or who doesn’t prioritize relationships build powerful coalitions?
- Can a leader who doesn’t communicate effectively generate buy-in for a sustainable vision of change?
I think for most of us the answer is at least “not likely” for all of these – which undermines the first four steps in the 8-step change process!
So, while I appreciate the concise steps for change provided by Kotter’s model and others that are equally consumable, they mostly represent the tactical investments that live on the tail end of any real change process. They ignore foundational concepts of readiness. If I might adapt the old adage: “Change is 90% preparation, 10% perspiration.”
The 8-steps are mostly the perspiration.
As leaders, we have to be mindful every day and in every interaction of what kind of organization we are building. We have to understand our power to engage and influence our people, to share power with them, and to prepare them to help lead and navigate change with us. We must work daily to generate energy and ownership of our vision, strategies, and work with others.
As leaders, we have to be willing to do the immeasurable and un-measureable work of building trust, modeling strong relationships, and investing in culture. If we do this work, we, and our organizations, will be ready for change as it comes. It will just be part of how we do business.