Using Kotter’s 8-Step organisational change model for success

Implementing Kotter’s 8-Step organisational change model successfully

The right organisational change model can make all the difference when implementing Employee Engagement or culture change within an organisation.

Whether a small change to a process or a organisational change it is common to feel unsettled and even intimidated by the scale of the challenge. We know something needs to change but where to start and how do we avoid becoming yet another change failure statistic?

Though there are many theories about how to manage change one of the best is by professor John Kotter (Harvard), a world-renowned change expert. He introduced his 8 step change process in “Leading Change.” (1995)

Kotter's 8-Step organisational change model successfully

John Kotter’s 8-Step organisational change model:

Step 1: Create urgency. Change is easier if the whole organisation really wants it. Kotter suggests that for change to be successful 75% of the organisation’s management needs to buy-in to the change. Developing a sense of urgency around the need for change helps create purpose and get things moving. Beyond showing poor sales statistics or talking about increased competition urgency requires honest and convincing dialogue about what is really happening in the organisation and the market. To do:

  • SWOT analysis – Identify strengths, potential weaknesses, opportunities you can take advantage of and threats in to the future of the organisation. Develop scenarios showing what could happen in the future if change doesn’t happen.
  • Open honest dialogue with stakeholders giving convincing reasons for change to get people talking and thinking.
  • Enlist support from outside stakeholders to strengthen your argument.

Top Tip: Step 1 is essential for change and to keep the momentum once started. Without a sense of urgency change often runs out of steam or the organisation gets change fatigue. Acting without sufficient preparation can lead to increased resistance and conflict.

Step 2: Form a powerful coalition. Managing change isn’t enough, strong leadership, commitment and support is necessary. Leadership goes beyond a title. Seek out a team of influential people throughout the organisation whose power comes from status, expertise, connection or political importance.  This change coalition needs to work as a team to build urgency and momentum around the need for change. To do:

  • Identify the thought leaders and influencers in your organisation, and other key stakeholders.
  • Ask for a commitment from these key people. They need to emotionally buy-in to the need for change. If they are not convinced nobody else will be.
  • Build your change coalition team through frank discussion, checking for weak areas and dissent. Ensure you have a representative mix of people from across the organisation.

Step 3: Create a vision for change. At first you will probably have many ideas and solutions floating around, some great some less inspired. Sift through the ideas for those  that stand the test of coalition discussions. The key is to link these ideas to a high level vision that people can grasp easily and remember. A clear emotive vision can help stakeholders understand why they should act. When they can see for themselves what you’re trying to achieve, then the actions and steps to take make more sense. To do:

  • Discover the behaviours and values that are central to the change.
  • Develop a short statement that captures the future of your organisation (one or two sentences).
  • Create a clear strategy to execute your vision. Stories are a powerful way to share the idea in a simple relatable way to the entire organisation.
  • Ensure that your change leaders and coalition can describe the vision in simple emotive terms in 5 minutes or less. Practice sharing this vision often and in multiple ways (i.e. not just PowerPoint).

Step 4: Communicate the vision. How your vision is communicated after you create it will determine your success. Your message will have to compete with other day-to-day communications within the organisation, so you will need to “over” communicate it. Research shows that a message needs to be repeated across various channels at least 6- 10 times before it is really heard amongst the other “urgent” message. Don’t just call a few special meetings to communicate the vision. the vision needs to be shared every chance you get. Use the vision daily as a compass to make decisions and solve problems. When your vision is in the forefront of everyone’s minds, they’ll remember it and respond to it. When it comes to sharing your vision what you do is far more important than what you say. It is essential for your leadership to demonstrate the behaviour that you need within the organisation to make the vision a reality. To do:

  • Talk at every opportunity about your change vision and listen to feedback on the vision. Vision communication needs to be 2-way!
  • Address stakeholders’ concerns and anxieties, openly and honestly. Sharing these concerns and how you plan to address them can go a long way to building buy-in. Buy-in comes from honest open communication, not pretending everything is ok (if there is resistance).
  • Measure the implementation of your vision in all aspects of operations from performance reviews through to training. What we measure and appreciate gets repeated.
  • Show the way with your actions and demonstrate commitment to listen.

Step 5: Empower action. Remove obstacles to the change by discovering and managing resistance to the change. Look for processes or structures that are getting in the way of the change, continually checking for barriers to forward movement. Outdated processes and “The way it has always been done” attitudes can slow or stop progress.  Recognise and reward those who point out obstacles and come up with innovative methods to overcome these obstacles. To do:

  • Identify change leaders (internal or external) who can help champion the change.
  • Re-look at the organisational structure, job descriptions, performance and compensation systems to ensure support the right behaviours to make your change vision a reality.
  • Recognise and reward people for enacting the right behaviours and for removing obstacles to enable the change to happen.
  • How we accomplish our vision matters more than the result as these behaviours form and embed the new organisational culture. Unethical or “short cut” behaviours can have a detrimental impact on all you achieve if they become part of the new “how we do things here” culture.
  • Open and honest dialogue with all stakeholders helps identify people who are resisting the change, and these discussions can help them see what’s needed.
  • Make removing barriers (human or process) a priority.  Vision aligned action demonstrates commitment.

Step 6: Create quick wins. Success motivates more success. Give your change agents small victories early in the change process. Break down the change into small chunks which allow some “quick wins” that your organisation can see. Celebrate these wins to develop and support momentum. Without wins cynicism and negative thinkers will impede your progress. Set short-term targets, steps along the way that demonstrate progress, not just one long-term goal. Make each step achievable, with little room for failure. Designing these small step goals can be challenging, but each “win” you produce adds motivate the entire organisation. The vision becomes more real and achievable with each small win. To do:

  • Look for “low hanging fruit” projects you can start with immediately without help from the most vocal of the change critics.
  • Pick relatively inexpensive targets as short term wins. Each change step project will require investment and you need to justify the investment.
  • Analyse the pros and cons of each step goal. Not succeeding with an early goal can hurt the entire change initiative.
  • Recognise and reward the people who help you achieve these small wins.

Step 7: Build on Change. Be careful not to declare victory too early, Kotter suggests this can undo achievements already made. Real change takes time and needs to become part of the culture, “The way we do things here”to be lasting. If change is not embedded into the culture it is easy for the organisation to slide back into comfortable old behaviours which undo the changes. Quick wins are only steps along the path to long-term organisational change.  Each success along the path provides an opportunity to build on what went right and identify what you can improve. To do:

  • After each win, assess what worked and what needs improvement.
  • Set goals to build on the small wins and maintain the momentum you’ve produced.
  • Increase buy-in and energy by adding new change agents and leaders for your change coalition periodically.

Step 8: Make it part of the culture. For any change to really stick it needs to become part of the culture of your organisation, “How we do things here”. The underlying corporate culture determines what actually gets done or what gets resisted. To make it part of your culture leaders must live the values and vision on a daily basis and recognise and reward those behaviours in others. The vision and behaviours must become part of the daily conversation and action in the organisation. Make the change visible in every aspect of your organisation. Demonstrate through conversations and actions that your organisation’s leaders continue to support the change. This includes existing members of the organisation and any new leaders who are brought in. To do:

  • Talk about progress of the change programme every chance you get. Share success stories about the change process, and ask for stories from members of the organisation and repeat those every chance you get.
  • Make the change behaviours and values part of your selection process when hiring and training new staff.
  • Publicly recognise members of your change coalition for their contributions.
  • Replace key change leaders as they move on to new projects.

Finding the right organisational change model can be daunting but Kotter’s excellent model is a great start on your journey of change. 


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Richard Riche

Change Communication and Employee Engagement specialist at One Clear Message Consulting
Richard specialises in helping you build real human communication skills. Employee Engagement / Experience, Emotional Intelligence skills, building high performance teams and a great place you want to work. TED style speaking and presentation skills. Training, consulting and coaching.
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