Leading Change

This is the title of a classic on change “management,” Leading Change, by John Kotter. The word management is in quotes because the premise of the book is that change cannot be managed, it must be led. Going in a straight line to get off the beaten path and on to a new one seems preferable, but it won’t lead you there. You need leadership to change course.

The essential value-add of Kotter’s book is that he linearizes the process of institutionalizing change so it looks like a dotted line. He identifies eight characteristic errors of change leadership that are like the holes between the dots.

Reading Kotter’s book, I was nagged by one question, the same one that had bothered me in a change-offsite sponsored a large NY based bank in the early 1990s. The session leader put up a power point slide similar to this one and asked, how would you advise Red Arrow to motivate the Blue Arrows to change direction?

Right there, he lost me. 

  1. why does Red Arrow want to turn at a right angle to the crowd of Blue Arrows? Is he really smart or incredibly stupid? What about the Blue Arrows: are they a wise crowd or a bunch of lemmings?
  2. how do we know the optimal path ultimately lies at an angle of 90 degrees to where the crowd is currently headed
  3. suppose the leader’s vision torqued the Blue Arrows into a compromise path at a 30-, 45- or 60-degree angle to where they are going now: is this a successful or failed change?

Even though Leading Change provides a superb guide to one-time change, it is not a model for continuous change. And it leaves out the game-theoretic challenges like these:

  • Who will provide the wisdom and knowledge to guide the strategy and tactics of change?
  • Who will assess the incentives for change?
  • Who will measure the changes to the payoff structure, pre- and post-change?
  • Is the answer to all three questions also “the leader”?

In Kotter’s preface to the new 2012 edition, he observes that more people today understand that change must be led rather than managed, but that there  is much greater complacency now. His conclusion: the book is needed now more than ever, for the need for leadership does not stop at the corporate office. Yet I believe some complacency is due to change fatigue, and some is due to something much, much more insidious. Pervasive mistrust.