Monday, May 16, 2011

Book Review: Leading Change by John Kotter

Enterprises deploy major technologies to address a pressing need.  But studies show that a majority of change efforts fail, expensively.  Salespeople lose long-term credibility when their proposed improvements do not take hold.  As a technology seller, it's helpful to understand how leaders implement change.  Additionally, sales account leaders will often be forced to change how their teams operate.  Many of the principles behind change an enterprise processes and a small team's operations are the same.

John Kotter's "Leading Change" is one of the foundation books in the field of change management.  First published in 1996, the book's eight stage process for leading change still forms the backbone of many change efforts.  Kotter, a Forbes top 50 business guru, is one of the world's well-known experts in writing about leadership and driving change. 

This book is about leading change, not managing it. There is a critical difference.  Almost by the definition, IT managers are responsible for managing change. C-level executives, the people in an organization to whom top sales people want to become a trusted confident, lead change.  The material in this book is directed at executives charged with leading change, especially executives in highly structured companies. Understanding Kotter's eight step change process with help salespeople understand the changes their c-level executives are facing as they attempt to deploy HP solutions.

In a well-structure book, Kotter lists the eight steps in the change process in the first chapter:

  1. Establish a sense of urgency
  2. Create a guiding coalition
  3. Develop a vision and strategy
  4. Communicate the change vision
  5. Empower employees for broad-based action
  6. Generate short term wins
  7. Consolidate gains and producing more change
  8. Anchor new approaches in the culture


Where Kotter shines is in the simplicity of how he lays out the process.  Anyone leading change can easily understand what course of action needs to be followed and in what order.    His book is meant to be a read as a field guide for leading change.

Throughout the book, Kotter lays out the steps need to make each stage of the process successful.  The book is with filled with practical examples of how to complete each stage, and what not to do.   Also, early in the book, he lists cautionary tales of what happens when a company does not successfully complete each stage. For example, when Kotter writes about communication the change vision, he mentions a rule of thumb, "Whenever you cannot describe the vision driving a change initiative in five minutes or less and get a reaction that signifies both understanding and interest, you are in for trouble."  It's time to go back to the drawing board and get things right.

A testament to the processes outlined in this book is how well the concepts have held up over time.  The book pre-dates the rise of the Internet, but is still a foundation book for leading change.  In part, this is because Kotter anticipated that in the 21st century the business climate would change dramatically, moving from a period of calm and stability into our current era of rapid and volatile change.  He understood that large enterprises have difficulty responding quickly to change and, accordingly, he wrote a future guidebook.  "Leading Change" helps organizations adapt by giving them a means to go from identifying change targets to making the completed solution a permanent fixture in organization's corporate culture. 

Others have amplified Kotter's positions.  Specifically, Michael Beitler's excellent "Strategic Organizational Change" has a chapter that reviews Kotter's principles, but "Leading Change" is probably more relevant today than it was when was first written.

Although the book is meant to be read by executives leading change, the eight step process can be adapted by anyone leading change, including sales managers.  In that way, the book has two benefits for sales managers:

  1. It helps sales managers understand the pressures c-level executives face in moving from announcing a change to institutionalizing it as part of a company's culture. 
  2. It sets up a process the can be followed for managers leading change on their own teams.



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