An introduction to leading change with Kotter’s 8-step process

After you’ve implemented a system, how often have you experienced users reverting back to their old ways?

When a new piece of software or process is implemented, much of the focus tends to be on the functionality it provides or the tasks that need to be done rather than the people who use the system.

Aside from user acceptance testing and user training, this human element is often missed. Yet, it’s arguably the most critical aspect of adopting change – especially large-scale organisational change.

Change management plays a critical role in the success of any project. Often people can be quite resistant to change. They like their comfort zone, rhythm or routine. If not managed well, they can reject change.

So, in this blog, I’ll take a high-level approach to help you better understand organisational change and become a transformational change leader.

At its core, my approach is deceptively simple: understand change from different perspectives and follow Kotter’s 8 step process for change.


1. Understand organisational change from the perspectives of your:

a. Organisational structure

Whether you’re working in a hierarchical, matrix or flat organisational structure, once you understand how these complex social systems behave you’re in an extremely good position to analyse how they’ll react when you change things up.

It’s also important to understand that while a ‘formal’ structure may show up on the intranet or in slide decks, there is also an ‘informal’ structure to your organisation. The leaders and people who are most influential aren’t necessarily the same in both cases.

The Influence/Impact Matrix is nice heuristic you can use to review your stakeholders. It maps them depending on their level of influence and the impact they can have. The quadrant they fall into provides a suggested strategy to deal with each person.

b. Organisational culture

Each organisation has a distinct culture. The longer you’re a part of it, the more you’re likely to know how it works.

However, what happens to that culture if we change things up? How does it react? The answers are intangible and can’t always be picked up from a user story or Use Case models. There’s also an element of psychology and leadership involved – for example, what motivates people? And how do you empower them?

Organisational culture should be considered at three levels:

  • The individual
  • The team; and
  • The organisation.

Observation is one of the most powerful techniques for understanding how things work and getting a flavour of an organisation’s culture. Be a fly on the wall. Watch them work in their own environment. You’ll often pick up things people forget to mention during interviews, meetings or workshops.

c. Organisational change drivers

Force Field Analysis is a really great way to assess what influences change. It’s fairly simple:

  1. Consider the forces for and against change, and how strong each of these forces are.
  2. Define strategies to either:
    a. Increase the forces for change; and/or
    b. Reduce the forces against change.

PETS or PEST analysis* will also help you assess the various imperatives that may trigger change and is an excellent way to structure your Force Field Analysis. It tends to focus more on outward and external factors. PETS stands for:

  • Political
  • Economic
  • Technological

* There are a few variants of PETS, such as PESTLE, which adds Legal and Environmental factors.

Unravelling the first problem to understanding organisational change puts you in a great position to implement it. A fairly well known and popular framework for change managers is Dr John Kotter’s 8-step process, first introduced in his 1995 book, Leading Change1.


2. Lead change using Kotter’s 8-step process.

Step 1: Create a sense of urgency

A sense of urgency creates excitement, passion and fervour. It delivers the spark that provides the momentum needed to get a change initiative off the ground. This urgency can be both positive (a new product idea) or negative (a technology becoming redundant). For a great case study on the power of urgency, see the Christchurch horizontal infrastructure recovery program, which smashed through red tape, vendor, and organisational politics to rebuild infrastructure after a natural disaster.

Step 2: Build a guiding coalition

It’s important you get executive buy-in for any change initiative. This gives the team a way to remove obstacles and a voice at higher levels. Without this support, many initiatives struggle and ultimately fail.

Step 3: Form a strategic vision and initiatives

A clear vision is important. It will ensure all those involved are on the same page and moving in the same direction. As with any project, alignment greatly increases the chances of success.

Step 4: Enlist a volunteer army

In many change initiatives you’ll often see a call for volunteers or change champions. Building a network of supports helps to communicate and evangelise the change and provide a feedback loop into the change team. It’s extremely important that feedback mechanisms are in place so the team knows it’s on the right track and can react to any obstacles. Having an army of volunteers from several different organisational silos will also help with whole of organisation buy-in and avoid “Not Built Here” syndrome.

Step 5: Enable action by removing barriers

Removing barriers and obstacles, such as those identified during the Force Field and PETS analysis, will reduce threats to a change initiative and smooth out the change journey.

Step 6: Generating short-term wins

As is common practice in the Agile and Lean world, small wins provide visibility. It makes the change feel more tangible and gives your initiative momentum. An early win also helps galvanise your team. However, the team needs to be careful it’s focusing on the right ‘wins.’

Step 7: Sustain acceleration

When the team’s credibility and influence increases, it’s important to keep the momentum going. Any drop-off or let down may result in changes being reversed or undone.

Step 8: Institute change

Ingraining the change into your organisation’s culture is the last hurdle. ‘Institutionalise’ it, make it a normal part of the day-to-day.Keep in mind this process is not a set of sequential steps. It’s better to think of it as a loosely ordered checklist of things to do. You should iterate them.

 Also, this is by no means the only way to lead change. You should always adapt, adjust and tailor any change program to the situation at hand. There a quite a few resources on the internet with more details around this process. The wording might be slightly different, but the intent should be consistent.

There’s a wide body of knowledge in and around change management – far more than I can go into within the scope of this blog. I think it’s extremely beneficial to invest some time in learning about various techniques, methodologies and approaches. From Organisational Behaviour through to Systems Thinking and Cynefin, it’s always good to have a broad range of tricks in your toolkit.

Also, the simplicity of the above approach actually hides the complexity involved in a real-life change initiative. Quite often very hard decisions need to be made. Changes to roles and responsibilities, redundancies, reduction in workforce size will have significant impacts on the people involved. A backlash and major disruptions may ensue.

Change is never easy. What advice do you have for managing change within organisations? Please leave a comment below.



  1. Leading Change


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