25 December 2008

Why good people fail to change bad things

Filed under: books, change, complacency, leadership, urgency — David Wood @ 3:22 pm

2008 has been a year of great change in the Symbian world. Important change initiatives that were kicked off in previous years have gathered speed.

2008 has also seen change and trauma at many other levels, throughout the mobile industry and beyond. And the need for widespread change still remains. Daily – perhaps hourly – we encounter items that lead us to wonder: Why isn’t someone getting this changed? Why isn’t someone taking proper care of such-and-such a personal issue, family issue, social issue, organisational issue, political issue, educational issue, environmental issue, operating system issue, ecosystem management issue, usability issue, and so on?

I’ve attended quite a few “change facilitation workshops” and similar over the last 24 months. One thinker who has impressed me greatly, with his analysis of the causes of failure of change initiatives – even when good people are involved in these initiatives – is Harvard Business School Professor John Kotter. Kotter describes a series of eight steps which he recommends all significant change initiatives to follow:

  1. Build a sense of urgency
  2. Establish an effective guiding coalition
  3. Create a clear, appealing vision
  4. Communicate, communicate, communicate
  5. Remove obstacles (“empower”)
  6. Celebrate small wins
  7. Follow through with wave after wave of change
  8. Embed the change at the cultural level.

Lots of other writers and speakers have their own different ways of describing the processes of successful change initiatives, but I find Kotter’s analysis to be the most insightful and inspiring.

The main book that covers this eight stage process is “Leading Change” – a book that must rank high in the list of the most valuable business books ever written.

Subsequently, Kotter used the mechanism of an easily-read “cartoon book”, “Our Iceberg Is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions“, in order to provide a gentle but compelling introduction to his ideas. It’s a fable about penguins. But it’s a fable with real depth. (I noticed it and purchased a copy in the Inverness airport bookshop one day, and had finished reading it by the time my plane south landed at Gatwick. I was already resolved to find my copy of “Leading Change” and re-read it.)

As Kotter emphasises, the steps in the eight-stage change leadership process have mirror images which are the main eight reasons why change initiatives stumble:

  1. Lack of a sufficient sense of urgency;
  2. Lack of an effective guiding coalition for the change (an aligned team with the ability to make things happen);
  3. Lack of a clear appealing vision of the outcome of the change (otherwise it may seem too vague, having too many unanswered questions);
  4. Lack of communication for buy-in, keeping the change in people’s mind (otherwise people will be distracted back to other issues);
  5. Lack of empowerment of the people who can implement the change (lack of skills, wrong organisational structure, wrong incentives, cumbersome bureaucracy);
  6. Lack of celebration of small early wins (failure to establish momentum);
  7. Lack of follow through (it may need wave after wave of change to stick);
  8. Lack of embedding the change at the cultural level (otherwise the next round of management changes can unravel the progress made).

A few months ago, Kotter released yet another book on the subject of change initiatives that go wrong. Like “Our Iceberg Is Melting”, this is another slim book – only having 128 pages, and with large typeface, making it another very quick read. But, again, the ideas have real merit. This book is called “A sense of urgency“.

As the name implies, this book focuses more fully on the first stage of change initiatives. The biggest reason why significant change initiatives fail, in Kotter’s considered view, is because of a lack of:

a real sense of urgency – a distinctive attitude and gut-level feeling that lead people to grab opportunities and avoid hazards, to make something important happen today, and constantly shed low-priority activities to move faster and smarter, now.

Instead, most organisations (and most people) become stuck in a combination of complacency and what Kotter describes as “false urgency”:

  • Complacency is frequently fuelled by past successes and time-proven strengths – that may, however, prevent organisations from being fully aware of changes in circumstances, technologies, and markets;
  • False urgency involves more activity than productivity: “It is frenetic. It is more mindless running to protect themselves or attack others, than purposive focus on critical problems and opportunities. Run-run, meet-meet, talk-talk, defend-defend, and go home exhausted.”

Kotter provides a helpful list of questions to help organisations realise if they are suffering from over-complacency and/or false urgency:

  • Are critical issues delegated to consultants or task forces with little involvement of key people?
  • Do people have trouble scheduling meetings on important initiatives (“Because, well, my agenda is so full”)?
  • Is candour lacking in confronting the bureaucracy and politics that are slowing down important initiatives?
  • Do meetings on key issues end with no decisions about what must happen immediately (except the scheduling of another meeting)?
  • Are discussions very inwardly focused and not about markets, emerging technologies, competitors, and the like? …
  • Do people run from meeting to meeting, exhausting themselves and rarely if ever focusing on the most critical hazards or opportunities? …
  • Do people regularly blame others for any significant problems, instead of taking responsibility and changing? …

The centrepiece of “A sense of urgency” is a set of four tactics to increase a true sense of urgency:

  1. Bring the outside in. Reconnect internal reality with external opportunities and hazards. Bring in emotionally compelling data, people, video, sights, and sounds.
  2. Behave with urgency every day. Never act content, anxious, or angry. Demonstrate your own sense of urgency always in meetings, one-on-one interactions, memos, and email, and do so as visibly as possible to as many people as possible.
  3. Find opportunity in crises. Always be alert to see if crises can be a friend, not just a dreadful enemy, in order to destroy complaceny. But proceed with caution, and never be naive, since crises can be deadly.
  4. Deal with the NoNos. Remove or neutralise all the relentless urgency-killers: people who are not skeptics but who are determined to keep a group complacent or, if needed, to create destructive urgency.

The rest of the book fleshes out these tactics with examples (taken from Kotter’s extensive consulting and research experience) and additional checklists. To my mind, there’s a great deal to learn from here.

Footnote: Kotter’s emphasis on the topic of “real urgency” may seem to fly in opposition to one of the most celebrated messages of the literature on effectiveness, namely the principle that people should focus on matters that are important rather than matters that are merely urgent. In the renowned “first things first” language of Stephen Covey, people ought to prioritise “Quadrant two” (activities which are important but not urgent) over “Quadrant three” (activities with are urgent but not important).

To my mind, both Kotter and Covey are correct. We do need to start out by figuring what are the most important activities. And then we have to ensure that we keep giving sufficient attention to these activities. Kotter’s insight is that organisations and people can address this latter task by means of the generation of a sufficient sense of urgency around these activities. In other words, we should drive certain key targets out of Quadrant two into Quadrant one. That way, we’ll be more likely to succeed with our key change initiatives.


  1. No doubt, Kotter has successfully structured the problem of change facilitation. Any of his books is a good investment. I think, it also worth mentioning Michael Beer with his ideas on change implementation in the corporate environment. Take a look at: “Why Change Programs Don’t Produce Change”, HBR by Beer, Eisenstat and Spector. Or “The Critical Path to Corporate Renewal”.

    Comment by Anton Kalachev — 1 January 2009 @ 5:49 pm

  2. Hi Anton,

    >…it also worth mentioning Michael Beer with his ideas on change implementation in the corporate environment. Take a look at: “Why Change Programs Don’t Produce Change”, HBR by Beer, Eisenstat and Spector. Or “The Critical Path to Corporate Renewal”.

    Thanks for the pointers.

    I particularly like this summary which I came across, of the contents of “The Critical Path to Corporate Renewal”:

    The human sources of competitive advantage – coordination, commitment, and competence – cannot be enhanced through programs. Successful corporate renewal occurs only when plants, divisions, and departments involve employees. That must be done through a carefully designed series of steps – the critical path – led by unit general managers. Companies that have followed this strategy have flatter and less hierarchical organizations, employees who take initiative to reduce costs and improve quality, and enhanced teamwork at all levels.

    Also this (from the HBR site):

    Faced with changing markets and tougher competition, more companies realize that they must transform how they function. Although senior managers understand the necessity of change, they often misunderstand what it takes to bring it about. They assume that corporate renewal is the product of companywide change programs–and that to transform employee behavior, they must alter a company’s formal structure. Change programs are, in fact, the greatest obstacles to successful revitalization, and formal structure is the last thing a company should change, not the first.

    It’s food for thought!

    // dw2-0

    Comment by David Wood — 2 January 2009 @ 12:29 am

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