John P Kotter on leadership and change


John P. Kotter (born 1947), is the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership Emeritus at Harvard Business School, and is widely regarded as one of the world's foremost authorities on change and leadership.

A prolific writer, Kotter's books include Leading Change, Our Iceberg is Melting, Corporate Culture and Performance, and A Force for Change. No fewer than seven of his books have won awards or honours.

In Leading Change, Kotter cites eight steps that are essential for leading successful change.

Organizations, he says, need to: have a sense of urgency; create a powerful, guiding coalition; develop vision and strategy; communicate the change vision; empower broad-based action; celebrate short-term wins; continuously reinvigorate the initiative with new projects and participants; and anchor the change in the corporate culture.

Of these, he says, urgency as the most important guiding force especially at the outset of a change initiative.

In his most recent book, A Sense of Urgency (Harvard Business School Press, 2008), he returns to the issue.

John Kotter talked to Des Dearlove about why he felt the time was right to revisit the theme Ė and about his own sense of urgency to improve leadership practise.

Leadership and change are the two central themes of your work. To what extent are the two synonymous?

They are tightly interconnected. Great leaders mobilise people to do something that creates a new state of affairs. They take a situation that was going off the cliff and bring it all the way back, or they take a situation that seemed fine and make it better.

It is no coincidence that my two favourite political leaders in the twentieth century are Churchill and Mandela, both associated with huge changes.

Your latest book is about creating a sense of urgency. Why did you return to that topic now?

A few years back, we produced a research report that said 70 percent of change efforts either didn't stick or went down the drain or were disappointing. Then we studied the top 10 percent and then 5 percent and found there was a pattern to successful change with eight steps.

That report got an incredible reception, so we followed up with the second study and found some additional pieces that turned out to be very important.

When people talked to me, the single biggest question was, out of all these eight steps, which did people have the most difficulty with? I thought about that, looked at what I knew and said it's the first one. It's all about a sense of urgency. And then I started creating the next research project.

What did you learn from that research?

Three things. Number one, it reinforced my first instinct that urgency was the key. Number two I discovered that people often thought they had a sense of urgency when they didn't. And number three, even when leaders recognised that it was a problem, and we were talking about in some cases very sophisticated people, they still didn't know what to do about it.

So urgency is a prerequisite for successful change. But it has to be a certain sort of urgency?

That was one of the big insights that came out of the research. Real urgency, the kind that seems to be associated with these top 5 percent attempts to make useful change, is at the thinking level. It's this deep belief, based on data, that there are huge opportunities, and huge hazards out there in the world today that affect you and your business.

More importantly, at a gut emotional level, it is this almost irrational determination to get out there, find the opportunities, take advantage of them, duck the hazards and to win -- and to do that starting NOW!

Even with the best intentions it's easy to get bogged down in day-to-day tasks. How do the successful change leaders avoid that?

This isn't a leader who says I'm going to make progress in the next six months. That isn't urgent enough. Urgency is when a leader says I'm going to start to make this happen today! This is so important that it takes priority over everything and their behaviour models that to other people.

In the book you also describe another phenomenon that you call false urgency?

That's right. False urgency is the killer, because it gets mistaken constantly for real urgency, which creates huge problem.

That's the sort of headless chicken behaviour. But what causes it and what can we do about it?

False urgency tends to be driven by anxiety, fear, and sometimes anger. It is usually produced by pressure being put on people. And in terms of behaviour, it's just this frenetic-ness; it's this running in circles; it's the meeting, meeting, meeting, task force, task force, task force, report, report, report, sort of behaviour.

But it's activity not productivity. It's not being driven by this determination to do something now; it's being driven by anxieties and angers. But because it's energetic, people from a distance will mistake it for urgency.

Can you give an example of that?

Three weeks ago, I had an executive in my living room who runs a division of big company. I've had I don't know how many conversations like this. John, he said, we've got to make some big changes. OK, I said, can I ask you some questions? He agreed.

I'm looking at you and you seem to have a sense of urgency that something has to be done, I said. He agreed. Then I said, how many people in your organisation share that sense of urgency? Plenty, he said - that's not the issue. The issue is execution. They're just not getting it done.

What was your response to that?

Well, I said wait a minute - time out. Why do you draw that conclusion so quickly? About what? He said. About the urgency, I said. Just come to the offices, he said. It's amazing the amount of people working until 7:30 every night. OK, I said, give me ten minutes.

So I went upstairs and made a phone call to a former student of mine who works at the same company - two levels below the boss. I asked him to tell me a little about what was going on, and he started to talk and there was a huge disconnect between the boss and just two levels down. So the boss is ready to run but there is no clarity about the direction. Thank goodness he talked to me and I managed to slow him down a bit.

And that's false urgency?

Yes. I see this all the time: the disconnect is huge between what the boss says and what the reality is down there. And, of course, that means the boss goes rushing off, assuming that he's got some base. And then he says we need to communicate and execute.

First, he's communicating something that very often is difficult to understand; and second he's communicating it to people who are waiting for bad news. The propensity to want to listen, to want to grab and do it, is zero.

So eventually when he discovers this six months later he says I have this execution problem - which means, I've done my job, they're not doing theirs. And surprise, surprise, two years later they haven't achieved the change and it's a mess.

You see this pattern a lot?

The number of times I've seen that, it makes you want to throw tables out of the window. When that's happening in too many places in the economy, in your government and so on, the resources they're wasting are huge.

What can organizations do about it?

You have to start reconnecting with what's going on outside. There are dozens of ways you can start reconnecting. For example, what percentage of the people in the organization have gone and visited, oh, I don't know, Google? Point 000000000.1%?

Now some people would come back saying, this has no real relevance. That's defensive. But it's impossible that some people wouldn't come back with a different perspective and start spreading that to other people.

There are lots of little things that you can do to reconnect.

What else can leaders do?

The other big one is just getting enough people at enough levels to start acting with urgency.

So that's modelling it?


How does a leader do that?

By not looking complacent himself. Something that drives people crazy is when a leader says we face many challenges -- oh it's time for tea. You get people doing this. And they don't mean to, they're not stupid people, they're not evil people, they just have learned that. But if you get enough of these people acting with real urgency then it starts to spread.

Can you give an example of that?

When Lou Gerstner took over as CEO of IBM, the company was in crisis but no one inside had any sense of urgency. A month into the job and the yearly business reviews were due. This was a very structured thing; it had been done this way for years.

Each of the divisions came in to the room at HQ and they make their presentations to the senior management. And it's all the same. There's a little wooden podium and a screen and a projector, and the guy would get up in his suit and tie, and the lights would go down and he starts reading a speech.

The whole thing is building up to say why they're doing a fine job and why they need more resources. So Gerstner sat through a couple of these and then five minutes into the third one, he says could somebody turn up the lights. And then he goes around the table, and he looks at the projector and he clicks it off. And then he goes back to his place and he rolls up his sleeves and he says, guys, why don't we just talk about the business?

That story travels faster than any other form of communication. The IBM guy in China knows it within 24 hours because Gerstner knows that talking about the business is the only way to save the business.

You guys are losing all this money, he says, and you're going to die. We can't let you die. Do you know how many families depend on this company? This is not going to happen. We're going to figure out a way to do this and we're going to start figuring it out today. We're going to end this afternoon with some decisions that I'm going to start implementing and you're going to start implementing next week to get this thing rolling.

And that's urgency.

Yes, that's urgency.


About The Author

Des Dearlove & Stuart Crainer
Des Dearlove & Stuart Crainer

Des Dearlove is a long-term contributor and columnist for The Times and a contributing editor to Strategy+Business. Stuart Crainer is a contributing editor to Strategy+Business and executive editor of Business Strategy Review.