The Evolution of Change: Why Things Need to Be Done Differently

Written by Paul Arnold Thursday 08 March 2018
John Kotter revolutionised change management with his industry altering book Leading change, but is it time for a fresh outlook?
Clock and text "Time for review"

When John Kotter, the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School, produced his now celebrated ‘8-Step Process for Leading Change’, he was the first person to set out a replicable process for achieving transformative results in organisations.

Pre-Kotter, change programmes had been driven by a handful of consultants working with Fortune 50 companies. For the early change adopters such as GE, Ford, and AT&T, there were a limited number of change management case studies available to learn from, and no thought leadership pieces or white papers.

Kotter changed all that.

His 1996 book, Leading Change, not only sold over a million copies, and was named by Time magazine as one of the most influential business management books of all time, it also triggered an explosion in change management.

Twenty years on from that landmark publication, change is now embraced by the world’s best companies. To be in a state of constant change is an aspiration, a sign of an innovative culture.

And change is one of the fastest growing segments of the management consultancy sector, with new programmes launched consistently. Together with ‘transformation consulting’ and ‘strategy consulting’, change management accounts for £1bn-plus of the £6bn UK market alone, and is growing faster than at any time since 2007.

Change is Constant – and Permanent

The successful management of change is now a source of competitive advantage. Companies that don’t change, suffer. Those that do, thrive.

Accenture has calculated that, since 2000, 52% of companies in the Fortune 500 have gone bankrupt, been acquired, or have ceased to exist.

In large part, this is due to the disruption of traditional industry models.

In this volatile world, it’s my view that we should revisit and reform some of Kotter’s 8-Step Process (despite Kotter International upgrading of some of its processes in 2014).

Here is my five-step process to amending change processes: The rise of the ‘change management department’?

Until about six years ago, few organisations recruited in-house change management professionals. Executive search firms received zero requests for such roles. It was generally HR departments who handled change.

Today, says Kim Nightingale, transformation change manager at Shared Services Connected, corporations are creating internal organisational change management teams and practices.

Tools, frameworks and methodologies are emerging, designed to raise capability and capacity. This is allowing businesses to be more flexible when tackling change – moving them even further from Kotter’s more rigid, formulaic approach.

Edward Young is a change management leader with a global petrochemical organisation that’s going through a global change programme.

He says it’s high time that organisational change management re-shaped itself.

Young believes that Kotter's focus on creating bands of ‘change champions’ to define and lead change implementation is no longer effective.

Such people will either lack the authority to gain traction or, worse, will be seen as mere management ciphers.

Such a corps of ‘change champions’ proved a disaster within Young’s own organisation.

After 11 months there were lots of PowerPoint presentations, but little change on the ground, and even fewer measurable impacts.

The new-look organisational change management will, Young believes, be bottom-up, focus on getting buy-in and rely heavily on the insights of local ‘subject matter experts’.

The Australian retail banks Westpac and Commonwealth Bank are already reaping the rewards from such an approach.

Before it even started down the change road, Coca-Cola Enterprises set out to identify potential roadblocks. A year later, it revisited the programme’s impact and the company discovered more new opportunities for improvement. These are best-practice new case studies of change. Where next?

The gap between organisations at the top of the change management game and the rest is still too wide. That said, organisational change management (OCM) is growing. It may only be a matter of time before all organisations embrace the idea of constant change.

How you design a corporate change strategy for 2016 conditions requires a different mindset to the one Kotter was working with three decades ago. Today the emphasis must be on the people affected by the change (the ‘O’ of OCM).

Whether your change programme originates in HR, or it’s deployed by the COO and championed by the CEO, it will only be effective if everyone affected is fully immersed.

John Kotter created a process that allowed thousands of change programmes to flourish.

He energised organisations, and gave them fresh relevance in their markets. In many cases, he probably ensured their survival. His ideas put change management on the map. But like all breakthrough thinking, it needs to adjust with the times.

Yes, even Kotter’s world of change has changed.

Paul Arnold

Paul Arnold

Paul Arnold is director at organisational change management consultancy Able and How