Successful Change Management — Kotter’s 8-Step Change Model

The heart of change represented by a sculpture called "Heart Connection."

The Heart of Successful Change Management

In 1996 John Kotter wrote Leading Change* which looked at what people did to transform their organisations. Kotter introduced an 8-step change model for helping managers deal with transformational change. This is summarised in Kotter’s 8-step change model.

For The Heart of Change* (2002) John Kotter worked with Dan Cohen to look into the core problems people face when leading change. They concluded that the central issue was changing the behaviour of people and that successful change occurs when speaking to people’s feelings.

In this article Martin Webster explains how Kotter’s 8-step change model gets to the heart of how successful organisational change actually happens and answers the question “how do you go beyond simply getting your message across to truly changing people’s behaviour?”

You’ll also learn how The Heart of Change can alter the way organisations and leaders approach change management.

Since this guide covers a lot of ground and is a long read (3,000 words) you may want to check out the table of contents below for some quick jumping around. And if you want to read more high quality articles please sign up for email updates and never miss another post.

Want to read something shorter? Visit our related post: The Heart of Change. Or download the ebook of this article from our member resources section.

Table of Contents

Successful Change Management

John Kotter’s 8-step change model comprises eight overlapping steps. The first three are all about creating a climate for change. The next on engaging and enabling the organisation. And the last, implementing and sustaining change.

From experience we learn that successful change occurs when there is commitment, a sense of urgency or momentum, stakeholder engagement, openness, clear vision, good and clear communication, strong leadership, and a well executed plan. Kotter’s 8-step change model recognises each of these characteristics.

Kotter’s 8-Step Change Model for Leading Change

We highly recommend you read The Heart of Change* John Kotter and Dan Cohen. Whether you are a senior executive, in middle management or part of a project team the research, which is backed up with stories — mini case studies — and exercises, is invaluable.

The reading provides straightforward advice that makes much sense — undoubtedly you will have observed what is written.

Creating a Climate for Change

Many initiatives fail or at best fall short of their original aim because the organisation either lacks interest in the proposed change effort or spends too much energy resisting the change management process.

Increasing Urgency

Diagram illustrating the Kotter's 8-step change model.

Kotter’s 8-step change model

We often see organisational change beginning with detailed analyses, the preparation of a hefty business case, and later approval by corporate management. Unfortunately this energy is often wasted and does very little to move the organisation toward transformational change.

The assumption is that information and analysis followed by executive management approval is enough to change behaviour. It is not! Whilst these may be necessary organisational steps they are not needed … right now.

Getting the bosses’ approval and presenting new ideas to disinterested business units rarely secures agreement and inevitably results in resistance.

For instance, complacency, immobilisation, self-protection, deviance, pessimism, and holding back. The change effort doesn’t start well.

Urgency sustains change

Rather than shoving a project down the throats of operational managers change leaders need to generate a sense of urgency about the task in-hand and get the right team together to deliver transformational change. Change comes about because there is some underlying crisis: customers are unhappy, costs are rising, budgets are cut, competitors have the advantage and so on.

Analysis has the effect of putting the brakes on. Yet crisis has to be dealt with. Sorting out a problem provides the platform to get people talking about what needs to change.

The Heart of Change suggests that we need to break from tradition and start using compelling, eye-catching situations to see problems and solutions. Honest facts and dramatic evidence — customer and stakeholder testimonies — show that change is necessary. Seeing something new hits people on a deeper emotional level without the usual negative responses and resistance.

Building the Guiding Team

Creating a sense of urgency helps to bring the right people together. And getting the right people in place is about getting the right team, commitment and trust to do the job. This is what step 2 is about.

Moreover, it’s about confronting issues that are traditionally avoided. It means emotionally honest and open behaviour, speaking the unspeakable, connecting to the feelings of others, and doing so without fear of reprisal. For instance, what can you do if management doesn’t even admit that a problem exists?

Most likely you will skirt around the issue and continue to build on a culture of mistrust. But organisational politics doesn’t have to result in ducking and dumping. Before you can begin to build a guiding team — with the right skills, leadership capacity and credibility — someone has to persuade people that something needs to happen. That is, to face the issue. This may seem counter-intuitive.

However, successful change doesn’t happen unless there is open and honest dialogue. Consequently, it can be a good thing to have periods of conflict which bring out the best (and worst) in people because a change leader will almost certainly emerge; someone who feels great urgency, pulls people together, and defines the guiding team.

Unfortunately this doesn’t happen very often. Usually top management approve a change project and hand over responsibility to a senior manager who then forms a pseudo-project team or task group to manage the work. Rarely are these effective structures. They are made of the wrong people and usually have complex and unworkable governance arrangements.

What’s more, most team members have other jobs to do and are unlikely to be fully committed to the change project. Of course, everyone is polite. And they say the right things. But words rarely translate into concrete actions when trust is low. People rarely say what’s on their mind, problems surface, and so does blame! Therefore members of guiding teams must learn how to be trusting and candid with each other.

In The Heart of Change John Kotter and Dan Cohen use a brilliant story by Roland de Vries to illustrate how hopelessly difficult teamwork problems can be overcome with courage and confidence in conviction. Only then can the guiding team set a clear sense of direction.

Getting the Right Vision

What is our vision for the future? What change is needed? What do we need to do to realise our vision? Good answers to such questions will help the organisation to make the future they want more probable.

Yet so many people create no vision or sense of direction for change. We’re back to the tome of a business case with plans and budgets that do little to show the future.

If you wish to make a future you must make it more probable

We need to remember that by creating compelling, eye-catching situations it is easier for others to see problems and solutions.

Creating a vision that can be conveyed in a matter of minutes is going to move people into action much more effectively than detailed analyses ever will.

However, transformational change is difficult — it’s a venture into the unknown — needs to be done correctly. We need to take an unorthodox approach and avoid over analytic, financially based visioning exercises.

Instead develop a vision that moves people and pay lots of attention to the speed in which you can introduce change.

Prepare this way: first prepare a vision that takes you to an end state, second a strategy to show you how to achieve the vision, next step-by-step plans to carry out your strategy, and finally budgets to make sure you can afford your plans.

Engaging and Enabling the Organisation

Kotter’s 8-step change model is about showing people a truth that influences their feelings. We’ve seen how a sense of urgency moves people to action and helps us pull together a guiding team that can go on to prepare a clear and simple vision of the future.

Communicating the vision and strategy comes next.

Communicate for Buy-in

Transformational change projects tend to generate lots of information. Unfortunately the message about organisational change is often lost and people fail to see why the change is needed.

They don’t buy into the idea and start resisting our efforts; we create the wrong emotional response.

Deeds speak volumes

Kotter and Cohen use stories to illustrate how communicating for buy-in can work.

Moreover, we also learn what does not work:

  • Under-communicating – the goal of organisational change is to get as many people as possible on-side, i.e. working toward the same goal. Information must be relevant and come with the opportunity to ask questions.
  • Pushing information – good communication isn’t simply about data transfer. Change inevitably leads to conflict. Accordingly, open and honest dialogue is essential.
  • Not walking the talk – Kotter says “Deeds speak volumes.” When there’s a gap between words and deeds the destructive force of cynicism grows. Change is undermined. Therefore our behaviour must be consistent with the vision.

We need to keep communication simple and to the point and above all understand the mood before conveying our message and addressing people’s anxieties, distrust, or anger.

And finally, we must clean up communication channels so that important messages are highly visible and understood.

Empower Action

Or rather remove barriers! One of the biggest barriers to change is the dis-empowering manager. People often get the message about change and want to do something about it.

But they can’t do anything because their boss is an impossible obstacle. What do we do?

  1. Send the manager on a short training course?
  2. Do nothing?
  3. Confront the issue?
  4. Sack them?

Another cause of dis-empowerment concerns the organisation; it’s structure, policies and processes.

These can bind the hands of those who want to make the vision a reality.

I recall a colleague leaving employment. In his farewell speech he said “You’re a great bunch of people … but you could do so much more.” He saw the crippling effect bureaucracy had on the organisation. Unfortunately, organisational culture — especially those that are used to incremental change or failed change — leads to the greatest barrier of all: the mind.

Dis-empowered people are programmed to learn what can and can’t be achieved. They internalise a belief that they are incapable of achieving change; their feelings hold them back.

Thus, we need to tackle these barriers head on! As with all aspects of Kotter’s 8-step change model the answer is in showing people why change is needed. Dis-empowering bosses should be given new jobs or roles that clearly show them the need for change.

Build optimism and self-confidence using inspirational stories from the workforce. Recognise and reward achievement. Use feedback to help people make better decisions (read the story Making Movies on the Factory Floor.) And make use of people who have change experience as they will boost confidence.

However, make sure they are credible and can convey success stories. Otherwise, consultants will be ignored and new recruits squashed by your organisation’s culture.

Create Short-term Wins

Large scale organisational change needs momentum, a sense of achievement, and optimism. Therefore, it is essential that results are achieved quickly.

… with so much going on at once, you run the danger of getting nothing done very fast. People wonder where you’re leading them — and whether or not you’re taking the right approach.

Short-term wins serve four important purposes:

  1. Provide us with feedback about the validity of our vision and strategies.
  2. Give those working hard to achieve the vision recognition and encouragement.
  3. Build faith in the change project — attracting those who are not actively involved.
  4. Take away power from cynics.

We must avoid starting too many projects at once since this ultimately leads to chaos and is unlikely to offer an early win. Instead look for the low hanging fruit — short-term wins that can be achieved cheaply and easily — and make these as visible as possible.

Somewhere in the waves of change, you will have to attack the sturdy silos and difficult politics or you won’t create a twenty-first century organisation. – Kotter and Cohen

Implementing and Sustaining Change

In Engaging and Enabling Change we learned that short-term wins are critical to successful change because they offer credibility, resources and momentum.

Step 7 is about maintaining that momentum — not letting up — so the early changes are built on. Finally, we learn how to make change stick by nurturing a new culture by developing positive behaviour and shared values through a series of successful changes.

Don’t Let Up

Book cover for Kotter's 8-step change model from "The Heart of Change."

The Heart of Change

In The Heart of Change John Kotter and Dan Cohen present a number of case studies to illustrate how we can sustain change. Some are straightforward — but often overlooked — whilst others are highly creative examples that lead to a radical transformation of the business.

The idea is to continue with wave after wave of change and not to stop until the vision is a reality.

The main message from don’t let up is to create structures and situations that empower people to take risks and deal with problems without fear of reprisal. Removing structural obstacles is important: giving people enough power and leeway to innovate and solve those intractable problems often found in large organisations.

Successful change confronts embedded bureaucratic and political behaviours. We need to get rid of work that wears us down and work that has no relevance today. We need to free up time.

Typically, people assigned to change projects have to continue doing their day job. This is not the best approach; we should let someone else do the day job for a while and delegate upwards as well as down.

The workforce is easily tired of change when the sense of urgency is lost. People convince themselves that the change is complete and no more needs to be done.

However, this need not happen. A recurring theme from Kotter’s 8-step change model is to show ‘em, show ‘em, show ‘em! Change efforts succeed because people connect with the vision. They see how change addresses problems.

Using visual cues — quick wins, a light-hearted video or show, whatever — gives credence to what is often a vague, visionary idea.

In successful change efforts, the vision and strategies are not locked in a room … – Kotter and Cohen

Make it Stick

In a change effort, culture comes last, not first. This is the controversial and key point about Kotter’s 8-step change model.

Change has to be embedded in the very culture of the organisation if it is to stick.

Change doesn’t stop here. New ways of working must continue successfully for some time before culture truly changes. And culture cannot change until those new ways of operating are implemented. Making it stick is about:

  • Achieving tangible results quickly and ensuring change is embedded.
  • Tying results to new behaviours; showing people what the organisations really cares about.
  • Reinforcing the new culture through training and coaching; telling vivid stories about the organisation, what it does, and why it is successful.
  • Giving people who act according to new norms influential and visible positions.
  • Not giving up until you get the needed behaviour and results.

Example is not the main thing influencing others. It is the only thing. – Albert Schweitzer

Conclusions on Kotter’s 8-Step Change Model

According to Kotter and Cohen, successful change leaders find a problem or a solution to a problem and then show people using engaging and compelling situations to change behaviour.

They recommend a people-driven approach that helps people to see the reason for change. They argue that people change when they are shown the truth because this influences their feelings.

That is, emotion is at the heart of change. We see, feel, change:

  • See – Compelling and eye-catching situations are created to help show people what the problems are and how to resolve them.
  • Feel – Visualising ideas evokes a powerful emotional response that motivates people into action.
  • Change – The new feelings change or reinforce behaviours that make people work harder to make a good vision reality. The change is more immediate but must be reinforced to keep up the momentum.
Step Action New Behaviour
1 Increase urgency People start telling each other, “Let’s go, we need to change things!”
2 Build the guiding team A group powerful enough to guide a big change is formed and they start together well.
3 Get the vision right The guiding team develops the right vision and strategy for the change effort.
4 Communicating for buy-in People begin to buy into the change, and this shows in their behaviour.
5 Empower action More people feel able to act, and do act, on the vision.
6 Create short-term wins Momentum builds as people try to fulfil the vision, while fewer and fewer resist change.
7 Don’t let up People make wave after wave of changes until the vision is fulfilled.
8 Make change stick New and winning behaviour continues despite the pull of tradition, turnover of change leaders etc.

Kotter’s 8-Step Change Model for Successful Transformational Change Source: Kotter and Cohen, The Heart of Change, p. 7.

I trust you found this article on John Kotter’s 8-step change model beneficial.

Remember, it is about changing behaviour by making people feel differently about organisational change.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone leading change who wants to motivate people and overcome obstacles to achieve great results. Remember: we see, we feel, we change.


John KotterJohn Kotter is internationally known and widely regarded as the foremost expert on the topic of transformational leadership. His international bestseller Leading Change — which outlines an actionable 8-step change model for implementing successful transformations — has become the bible for leaders around the world who want to achieve great results.

Dan S. CohenDan S. Cohen is a Principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP, where he focuses his consulting activities on large-scale organisational transformation. Cohen led the development of the firm’s Global Change Leadership Methodology, as well as Deloitte Consulting’s Human Capital Energy practice. He has provided consulting support across industries to Fortune 100 companies worldwide.

Buy the Book

The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations [Kindle] [UK Edition] [UK Kindle Edition]

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Creative Commons image courtesy Nancy Regan.

Last updated 25 May, 2014 Share the knowledge …