Leading Transformations

This month I dusted off a graduate school reference, “What Leaders Really Do” by John Kotter. This book and a few others are those types of readings that are good periodic refreshers. In project management we are faced with implementing change as part of our projects. In an effort to create successful change events in our organizations, I thought it would be useful to outline Kotter’s eight reasons change transformations fail:

  1. Not Establishing a Great Enough Sense of Urgency: Without motivation, people won’t help and the effort will go no where. Kotter cites that most companies fail during this first phase. Many times organizations are paralyzed by having too many managers and not enough leaders. Managing change requires leadership. Often these organizations underestimate the level of effort required or how difficult it will be to drive individuals out of their comfort zones. He says that a successful sense of urgency rate is 75% of the company’s management is convinced that business as usual is totally unacceptable.
  2. Not Creating a Powerful Enough Guiding Coalition: To be successful, the leadership coalition should grow over time. In a small company this may be three to five people. Whereas in a larger organization, this could be in the 20 to 50 range. Senior mangers must always form the core of the group.
  3. Lacking a Vision: Vision extends beyond financial plans. It clarifies the company’s direction. He uses a rule of thumb that “if you can’t communicate the vision to someone in five minutes or less and get a reaction that signifies both understanding and interest, you are not yet done with this phase.
  4. Under Communicating the Vision by a Factor of Ten: Employees need to believe the change is possible and of value in order to make sacrifices. Business leaders must discuss how the proposed solution or change fits into the bigger picture and vision. Executives must continuously broadcast information about the change effort. This group must “walk the talk”. Consistency in actions and words is important. Inconsistencies will undermine the effort.
  5. Not Removing Obstacles to the New Vision: The more people involved the better. Employees may block the effort. They should be treated with respect and reminded of the new vision.
  6. Not Systematically Planning For and Creating Short-Term Wins: You need to show short-term wins. Leaders must look for ways to track performance, improvements and reward those involved in the effort. When a lengthy change effort is planned, urgency levels can drop. Short-term wins and celebrating these wins can help keep urgency levels in place.
  7. Declaring Victory Too Soon: We may sometimes be quick to declare victory with the first clear improvement. Celebrating short-term wins is still important, but we should be careful to not “declare the war won”. These efforts can take five to ten years to filter through the company culture. Change efforts require new approaches and are subject to regression.
  8. Not Anchoring Changes in The Corporation’s Culture: We need to careful and aware that change is not

The positive statement and action item for each of these obstacles would be:

  1. Establish a Sense of Urgency
  2. Form a Powerful, Guiding Coalition
  3. Create a Vision
  4. Communicate the Vision
  5. Empower Others to Act on the Vision
  6. Plan for & Create Short Term Wins
  7. Consolidate Improvements & Produce Even More Change
  8. Institute New Approaches

Most of us are aware of these items individually, but I think the real power and insight comes from looking at them together. From a project management standpoint, we may be focused on the schedule, scope, resources, budget and stakeholders, but we should also be aware and help to champion the underlying change effort.

What sets project managers apart is the ability and drive to counteract these barriers to change. These eight steps can and should be part of your implementation strategy. You may have the perfectly defined project and well executed plan, but without considering and managing the items above, your project not yield the its full potential and associated long-term sustained improvements.


Kotter, John P. (1999). John P. Kotter on What Leaders Really Do. Harvard Business Review Book.

Managing change can be difficult. This resource provides insight into the main reasons major change events/transformations fail and steps that can be taken to avoid failure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *