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Where Kotter’s 8 Steps Gets it Wrong

It requires tweaking, rather than a full overhaul

If you’re going to lead a change, John Kotter’s eight steps are a pretty safe bet. If you’re trying to build your organization’s overall ability to change and adapt quickly, I wouldn’t recommend training all staff in this philosophy. There are three main flaws in Kotter’s eight steps for leading change.

  1. Kotter’s model embeds the mindset that change is a one-time event, a process that must be meticulously managed and promises stability at its end. If we’ve learned anything over these last three years marked by global uncertainty, it’s that maybe life won’t “return to normal.”

  2. It promotes the idea that real change can only come from the C-suite. This approach makes it easy for employees to lose trust and credibility as leaders make changes to the change they’ve just touted as the most significant in the company’s history.

  3. It forces employees to be objects of change, futile pawns vulnerable to the decisions made to protect the King and Queen. Employee stress increases as their control of their lives decreases. We’ve heard many executives tell us that, during a major change, employees “turtle;” they retreat into their shells and try not to be noticed in order to “survive” the change.

This final flaw is the most damaging because by driving employee buy-in for one change, you may actually be undermining your company’s longer-term ability to evolve and compete.

Unfair Pressure on Change Leaders

Think about it. The 8-step model puts enormous pressure on leaders and managers, but doesn’t ask for much of employees. Managers are expected to ease fears, have all the answers, be expert communicators, and manage talent. Employees are expected to follow along.

How can managers and leaders possibly know the full implications of a change initiative or the full potential of employees to spot opportunities to change that which is in their span of control? Kotter’s focus on buy-in and following leadership direction can lead to “learned helplessness” of employees, whereby they don’t think for themselves and become over-reliant on others telling them what to do.

Employees in the Driver’s Seat

What if we invited our employees to take more control of change needed to transform our company? What if the comms team helped them to determine how they can affect the change? What if communicators provided them with the very same context that executives use to determine strategy to guide their decisions?

Comms teams can alter communications strategies to help employees be “drivers,” not objects of change. They can support leadership communication that empowers employees, connect employees to relevant peers and mentors to learn new ways of working, and share information to help employees see the bigger picture.

Drop the Word “Change” from Your Lexicon

Employees are your company’s greatest asset…or at least they should be. You hired them, you are paying them, now it’s time that you expect them to not tacitly or begrudgingly buy-in to change, but to drop the fears, assumptions, and feelings of helplessness associated with change.

A first step might be dropping the word “change” from the corporate lexicon. I don’t mean replace it with a synonym like transformation. I mean let it be known that, guided by your corporate mission and vision, your company will be constantly evolving, never sitting still. This will require that everyone get comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Ultimately, Kotter’s model and what we’ve learned about change management in working with CEB’s network of comms professionals are not entirely at odds: what if you following Kotter’s approach to gain buy-in to the concept of agility among your staff?

Imagine an 8-step campaign that “institutionalizes the change”…of change.

20 Responses

  • Eileen Lehmann says:

    Thanks, Kayleigh. Once again, you’re exploring exactly what I’m sitting here thinking about! It’s a little freaky, honestly, that I was just talking about Kotter yesterday.

    I’m looking at Kotter’s first few steps, and overall I think he’s still got a lot of solid principles we can’t forget. Like having a clear vision communicated with clear, heartfelt messages. And ultimately connecting to people who will embrace it and carry it out.

    So I think you’re saying, in our new vision statements (if we’re following Kotter) we’d be saying: “our company will be constantly evolving, never sitting still,” explaining the benefit of doing it, then being clear about what it looks when an employee is agile. (We don’t know exactly what their jobs look like in that future model, but we know what their behavior has to look like to mold that future, right?)

    I don’t think I can get away with “get comfortable being uncomfortable,” though! At least I don’t think it’s necessary right now. But I can think of some situations where that could be true for folks!

    Thanks for the article.

  • John Steinert says:

    I think its a big circle. The problem is just with the Kottler diagram, it may imply the top is the source of the ideas, but no one at the top would believe that. Ideas bubble up and support/momentum then is driven by management — good management is working on overcoming issues like Christensen’s “Innovator’s Dilemma”.

    On the other hand, now, with collaborative tools, innovators deep within the company can make a lot more progress gaining momentum on their own. So that when they do need management support they are far better prepared with proof points than ever before.

  • Miri McDonald says:

    Thanks for sharing. Like it or not, I do think C-suite drives what employees care about and think is worth changing – which is why I think the establishing the sense of urgency from the top is so important. I also think the clear shared vision is key which can really only come from leaders. One thing not mentioned which I’ve often thought is missing from Kotter’s model – he doesn’t really go into what the leaders are “like” at the top – are they credible, trusted, transparent? Do they agree on what needs to change? Are they all willing to really put themselves out there?

    I think his model assumes credible, trusted leaders are in charge and assumes that they are all willing to do whatever it takes to lead/champion the change(s). That is not always the case and there are no tools to determine how to get there. I think a recent book by Chris McGoff provides tools for working through these leadership challenges that can lead to problems adapting and evolving. The book is called The Primes.

    I think Kotter’s model is important for leaders to learn about but I agree that it’s lacking when it comes to mobilizing people at all levels. I also think it is lacking in terms of more tangible tools that can be used at the project level.

    Lastly, another thing I think is missing related to #3 – are tools to address the emotional/stressful part and the part where we have to help people find their resilience and build it up. Which is why I like that research around resilience so much by Hoopes/Conner and their book – Managing Change with Personal Resilience.

  • Wow, I’m blown away by the commentary. I appreciate each of you taking the time to share your thoughts and add to discussion.


    I promise that I do not have a mole at your organization listening to your conversations, but I’m glad we are pondering similar challenges! I like your interpretation of a new vision statement, and think your point that “we know what their behavior has to look to mold that future” is spot on. Right now most companies aren’t that great at supporting behaviors that will make their company agile–seeking feedback, learning, supporting peers, taking risks, etc.


    A thought and a question. Thought: I think you are hitting on a major fear of leaders at the top: employees within the company going off and “doing their own thing.” During our research we heard time and again that leaders were afraid that empowering employees would lead to complete chaos. Some leaders are not willing to give up control and don’t see, like you do, that employees have access to the information and tools to be able to make smart decisions on their own.

    Question: Do you think your company or ones that you’ve worked for in the past hold employees (not managers and leaders) accountable for implementing change? Can employees get away with “I didn’t know or I didn’t get it” any longer?


    I do think Kotter’s model assumes credible, trusted leaders are in charge. In fact, I think it over-assumes as much. Unquestioning faith in leadership by employees disarms employees from asking challenging questions, discovering how they might influence desired outcomes, and ultimately taking ownership for change. Today’s best “change leaders”, I think, are the ones who seek employee feedback, prioritize coaching and support, make learning and exploring a priority at all levels, and connect employees to people, information, and tools across the organization. These leaders are setting up employees for success no matter how the environment changes.

    Also, if people don’t/can’t buy the book The Primes, a visit to the website describes the 32 ways to work through leadership challenges in short, fun-to-watch video clips:

  • Anne Camille Talley says:

    Kotter wrote his 8 steps in a different age. Much of his advice holds true, but not all of it as described above.
    The step that hits me hardest today is about creating a sense of urgency. I think Kotter was too successful in teaching the world how to do that. Everything around us now is urgent: smart phones, text messages, email, voicemail, web communities, FB, Linked-in… all of these add up to a cacaphony of urgency. Even catching the attention of the folks who need to embrace more change is becoming a real trick.

  • Thanks for your review of Kotter’s work and reasonable opinion but also thank you for the link to The Primes. I just checked it out and it is good!

  • Kathy Gersch says:

    Thanks for opening up this conversation about the 8-Step Process for Leading Change. As a member of Dr. Kotter’s change leadership team at Kotter International, I can tell you that some of our clients have raised similar concerns at the outset of their own change efforts. I’d like to take this opportunity to offer some clarifications.

    Is Change a One-Time Event, or a Continual Process?

    In your post, you suggested that the 8-Step Process approaches change as a singular event; in fact, the opposite is true. In his writings, Dr. Kotter stresses that the 8-Step Process actually prepares organizations to change continually as new challenges and opportunities arise.

    In Chapter 11 of Leading Change, he writes:

    “In total, all of the practices I’ve been describing here will help an organization adapt to a rapidly changing environment. Creating those practices so they stick is an exercise in creating adaptive corporate cultures.”

    Who Drives Change Forward, the C-Suite or the Employees?

    Of course, change starts at the top; you need people with position power to sustain progress and signal to employees that the change has the legs to take off. But the 8-Step Process ensures employees at all levels are not just involved in change, but are actually leading it. One of the earliest and most important steps in it is the formation of a “guiding coalition” of employees from all levels of an organization, each of whom volunteers to help revolutionize their organization. Emphasis is placed on each employee’s unique expertise and perspective within the company; job titles are left at the door. This is the true force driving change forward. One of the organizations we work with made a great video about their own guiding coalition to gain even more employee engagement []

    Does Change Happen to Employees, Or Are They Behind It?

    In your third point, you suggested that Dr. Kotter’s approach to change forces employees “to be pawns” to the organization’s leaders. Again, we don’t believe that top-down directives generate support for sustainable change. Dr. Kotter’s entire method rests upon the notion that employees, not just executives, must be the ones driving change forward. This is true from the start, where he encourages leaders to help their people understand and support the change initiatives, in order to get them to want to be involved; it is true in the second step, the guiding coalition I mentioned above; and it is true throughout the rest of the 8-Step Process for Leading Change.

    Speaking of Change…

    Finally, rather than dropping the word “change” from our lexicon, I think—and I am a communications professional just like you—that it would be more effective to work to shift people’s perception of that word to something closer to what you suggested: “constantly evolving, never sitting still.” Change can be a wonderful, positive, exciting experience that brings great rewards for many; I think we have the responsibility—and a great opportunity—to reinforce that.

  • David Juliano says:

    Kayleigh, thanks for your thoughts. Personally, I do not believe your viewpoints are accurate and that you are not fully knowledgeable about what actually is entailed in each STEP. You may want to re-read Leading Change and perhaps read Sense of Urgency as well. Both books include more details on what the 8 Steps are all about. To your points:

    POINT 1) Kotter’s model and his books plainly state that change is continual and not episodic. The 8 Steps are not meant to be moved through once and then all is well. Rather, the Steps are revisited ongoing as an organization moves through a variety of changes.

    POINT 2) All change must be led from the c-suite. All change requires senior executives leading and championing change. Kotter’s principles state that senior leaders must first identify what “change” is needed and then enlist employees at all levels to make that change happen. Gaining employee commitment rather than compliance. Kotter also states that great leaders also gain feedback and insights from employees at all levels prior to making decisions.

    POINT 3) Kotter plainly explains that enlisting and gaining commitment (he talks a lot about the head and heart) from employees at all levels is crucial. If you read his book Sense of Urgency, you will learn how important it is to first gain employee commitment and engagement prior to rolling out initiatives or change strategies. Urgency BEFORE strategy is the key. Otherwise employees feel as something is being done to them. Kotter’s approach is inclusive and not exclusive.

    As one who is a proponent of the 8 Steps and has used the process with both small and large scale change efforts, I can share with you that it works.

  • David, thanks for your thoughts, as well! I’ll take each of your points in turn:

    1. What I am suggesting is that being good at leading one change initiative by following the 8 steps does not necessarily mean that an organization is building an adaptive capability. What if by strictly adhering to the 8 steps a company was actually UNDERMINING its ability to adapt?

    Maybe it’s the 8 steps graphic that has me hung up. Maybe these steps should appear as a loop, a continuous process?

    2. I am skeptical of any observations that use the word “all”, so saying “All change must be led from the C-suite” set off alarms in my head!

    In our research we conducted an in-depth quantitative study to understand the drivers of employee performance in a high-change environment. We found that employee responsiveness—following directions and changing when necessary—had no significant impact on employee performance.

    I interpret this to mean that the C-suite’s efforts to enlist employees and gain their commitment won’t help employees to perform at their peak in today’s environment of high-change. What did drive performance was an employee’s ability to learn from others, seek feedback, support peers, and proactively spot opportunities to adapt.

    Instead of wasting time trying to get employee buy-in to change, what if leaders spent MORE time ensuring that employees could easily connect to people and information across the business or challenging employees to take risks and build their own confidence?

    3. Whether employees are committed to change or not, the simple fact is that employees are experiencing multiple major changes at their organization. In our global survey, employees had experienced, on average, 3.5 major changes in the last two years. It takes two years for the average employee to fully recover from just one change! The pace of change today means that employees do not have the luxury of recovering fully from the previous change before the toll of the next one hits them.

    What happens when employees are fully committed and engaged in a change that, in six months, is no longer prudent?

    What if you are setting yourself up to disappoint employees when you ask for their trust and commitment but then a financial crisis hits and you are suddenly asking them to trust a completely different direction?

    I’d love to learn more about how you applied the 8 steps successfully!

  • changingman says:


    I work in education with a distributed leadership model. However, in the recent past, all change has actually emanated from the senior leadership team who describe themselves as strategic. The timing of change bears all the hallmarks of uncoordinated distributed leadership, in that each senior leader seems to be ploughing ahead with major changes to their ‘area’ of leadership with either no real cognisance or acknowledgement of the fact that their senior leader down the corridor is simultaneously making equally big changes to their ‘patch’. The effect upon middle leaders and those in the classroom is a feeling of overload and classic turtle-effect response. Those brave enough to speak out against this situation are castigated as trouble-makers or ignored.
    This is not to decry any of the individual changes suggested, but in asking to alter the suggested time-frame of those changes I feel vindicated. On the other hand, Kotter in “Buy-in” (P189, 2010) says, “Theses people using confusion, delay, ridicule and fear-mongering strategies, can so wound a change effort that it never reaches its potential…we conclude that these people, and their antics, always exist”. Kotter’s statement is so dismissive of ‘delay’ that it is described as an “antic”. In other places within the book he speaks of a need to treat the people responsible for the 24 delay strategies with respect – yet his labelling of “these people” is used pejoratively and ignores the very real reasons to delay some changes. The fact that one of the current senior leadership changes was pre-dated by an exact same item within my own Development Plan, suggests that I am not change averse, but my time frame of two-three years is exactly double that now suggested by senior leaders. My time frame is based upon the fact that I know that I will be pulled in other directions across the year by changes initiated by other senior leaders; if the change suggested from above was the only one, then I agree whole-heartedly with the time frame…but it isn’t and positional power can, and is, used to attain some degree of conformity to the other suggested changes too. The end result is change being thinned-out, stressed staff who are constantly failing to hit deadlines and then verbal punishment for not doing so.
    Kotter sees delay suggestions in a negative manner and his book is aimed at countering these delays. What this does is to empower leaders of change (not of itself a bad thing), but it also neglects the fact that to ignore those voices suggesting delay, may actually weaken the chances of change being successful, may damage the guiding coalition’s authority as they launch the next big change and has led within my organization, to staff opting out of being a part of the various guiding coalitions, meaning power becomes more centralized and leadership being less in touch.
    It is not a healthy pace to work just now. The goal-orientated mantra is ‘Outstanding’ – but the desire to get there some time soon (and certainly before the next check-up which will be next year as last inspection yielded a mere Satisfactory judgement) is just crazy. Those who have suggested on this website that Kotter’s model is broad-based and inclusive need only read the “Buy-In” book to see that it is not and is firmly on the shelves of the CEO’s best buddies who are now armed and equipped to disarm the voices of delay, even when those voices may be the voice of reason when faced with some crack-brained careerist who has the support (at that time) to lead their area dynamically.
    In fact, I can feel a book coming on as a riposte to Kotter, with a draft title of “Opt-Out”. Instead of caricaturing the forces of conservatism within the organization, it would turn its focus to those who lead change and their ‘guiding coalitions’. Some of the caricatures in this text could be, “Egomanius” (x?), “CV Writer”, “Mr and Mrs Coattail” (who always quote Egomanius and invariably agree to join the guiding coalition), “Boxer” (from Orwell’s Animal Farm), “Whatever” and finally “Stop”. Fair enough it won’t have the gravitas nor learnedness of Kotter’s depth of study over many years. But it will happily venture outside of the doors of the CEO’s office and pre-arranged meetings and suggest, as this CEC article does, that empowered and included workers who are encouraged to evolve their own work places for the better become more supportive of change per se and cannot be caricatured as Kotter has done (rather insultingly) in his 2010 publication.

  • Interesting challenge you make. Firstly I think it is important to differentiate evolutionary change from revolutionary change. The application of Lean techniques is a prime technique for making these smaller evolutionary changes. Yes, the sum of these can amount to a major change over time. Kotter is at his best in the space where a large leap is needed.

    I have seen companies get into a real muddle when they run both approaches without proper coordination, that really derails both approaches.

    The true meaning of a sense of urgency is when enough people feel the need for change. This is not about edicts from the C-suite with lashing of “urgent” sounding phrases.

    As with all of these things – it is a tool that helps you achieve your goals, and used wisely it is highly effective in my experience.

  • Anne says:

    Excellent article Kayleigh,

    Having just experienced this change model in practice I fully support your observations. Change cannot be managed ‘simply’, Kotter’s 8 step model used by ineffective leaders can be detrimental to Companies. I will not go through all the steps but even step 1; Create a Sense of Urgency – handled wrongly creates a sense of panic amongst employees; form a powerful guiding coalition – in my experience it was a coalition of ‘bullies’; interestingly develop a compelling vision comes in 3rd – should the vision not be the first step?

    The terminology used in organisations: leadership, strategic etc., can imply an almost military attitude; this terminology used with references such as ‘remove obstacles’, the obstacles often being ‘human’, add to the sense of panic and mistrust garnered amongst the employees.

    Change in Organisations cannot be implemented quickly or simply without creating a negative culture of finger pointing, mistrust and backstabbing.

    Ensuring that the Leadership and Management in place are capable of correctly interpreting change model’s such as this is critical.

  • DUMONt says:

    Sorry, but all the content of this article shows a wrong understanding of the steps. Kotter has never described a method (-that’s true many bad consultants see them as a methodology -). Kotter is starting from his experience, underlining some points are more important than others to develop a collective dynamic when facing specific challenges (whre it is the responsibility of the Exécutives to face it). All your’re saying is relevant, good, interesting, but already present Inside the Kotter’s recommendations (the famous 8 steps) to drive change = to structure it as a collective dynamic (and there is space obviously for contributors along the transformation path.

  • Law Dave says:

    I appreciate your points. All your opinions count. Since this is a leadership issue, and if we consider our opinions authoritative and applicable in leadership studies, we should send our articles on the limitations of Kotter’s 8-Step-Change model to specialty leadership journals to open up anti-Kotter leadership debate so that a number other people can benefit. Any thoughts on this?

  • David says:

    Kotter’s method seems to be a non-method. There are a few actions that seem OK, but change in an organisation is not merely the dislocation of doing things differently. The most threatening change is where people lose their jobs. His approach hardly deals with that.

    But the most important type of change is adapting delivery systems to meet customer service expectations within a business environment that has its own challenges arising from competitors, finance, trends, suppliers, etc. For this (real) change, systems need to be changed, invented, adapted, and the best placed for this, with direction, support and guidance from the organisation’s leaders, are those with operational contact.

    Change becomes embedded when operational systems are congruent with new requirements. Change is a problem when it is a ritual void of clarity of operational/system changes that people need to devise, be trained in, equipped for and supported to become adept at.

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