Professor John Kotter walks through the essential components of successful changes.
- The eight critical steps for sparking change in your organization
- How you can test drive ideas for your organization at a lower risk
- How you can find inspiring mentors
Regarded by many as the worldwide authority on leadership and change, Dr. John Kotter is a New York Times best-selling author, award winning business and management thought leader, business entrepreneur, inspirational speaker, and Harvard Professor. His ideas and books, as well as the company he founded, Kotter International, have helped mobilize people around the world to better lead organizations and their own lives, in an era of increasingly rapid change.
Items Mentioned in this Show:
- Book: Our Iceberg Is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions by John Kotter
- Book: That’s Not How We Do It Here!: A Story about How Organizations Rise and Fall – and Can Rise Again by John Kotter and Holger Rathgeber
- Book: A Sense of Urgency by John Kotter
- Website: Kotter International
John, thank you for being here on the How to Be Awesome at Your Job podcast.
I’d like to start off first and foremost with a bit of fun in your email signature I see again and again with the Kotter International, you’ve got a little penguin integrated into the logo. Can you share with us why the penguin and what’s the story behind it?
That was years ago, just before we started the firm – it’s a management consulting firm. Holger Rathgeber colleague who now works for the firm in Frankfurt and I wrote a book that’s a fable and which is really off the charts for a Harvard professor but I’ve been studying about how people learn and decided that this could be a terrific format for helping people and so we tried it and it kind of blew everybody away starting with me and the number of emails that we have gotten from around the world. It created three stage plays, there were penguin or iceberg clubs all over the place in Africa and India.
So it was just a phenomenon and who ever put together our first logo said – that’s Fred, the key character in the story – why don’t we incorporate Fred because he represents not just success, but he represents a lot of what we care about which was dealing with a very difficult situation, he’s not a senior person in the tribe, so to speak, in the colony, and he yet helped them deal with a changing dangerous world and succeed. And that’s what we’re all about. Millions leading, billions benefiting and helping organizations mostly corporations but organizations everywhere that aren’t well equipped to do that right now.
Okay, interesting and so I want to go there next when it comes to the fable as the format. I’ve talked to people and they’ve got sort of mixed perspectives on the fable and some people think “oh you know we’re all grown up is that necessary?” And others think “this is so much more engaging and just really kind of fly through it.” So you said you did some good research before you decided to go down that path and you’ve done it a couple times now. Why the fable?
We just put out our second fable, That’s Not How We Do it Here: Meerkats in Africa. The brain, and especially we’re knowing more and more about how this incredibly complex thing works, it’s hardwired for stories because for a millennium that’s how people learned.
We didn’t have writing, we didn’t have podcasts or movies and one form of story that particularly was powerful because it could be so kind of interesting and fun and engaging and everybody can sit around the campfire and learn from it from youngsters to grandmas and grandpas was the fable.
And it has both an intellectual content but it has an emotional component to it that can make it sticky in our brain.
So people can, it engages them. They actually do read the thing and it has some lessons which they draw from it, not 73 lessons, but a limited number of important ones and because of the nature of our brains which love stories and can retain them and because fables, like a lot of great stories, have an emotional content, it sticks and it can help guide your actions in the future and make you more effective in how you deal with life.
And you’re right. There are a lot of people who are very well-educated people whose first reaction is this is beneath them, this is for children. Which is a shame because a lot of those people if they can have a couple of drinks and read a fable will get a lot out of it.
That’s fun, thank you. There was a CEO of a major health organization and once he just sat down and read the entirety of a business fable over the course of a couple hours at a cocktail party and I thought this was wild. All these folks were doctors and super sharp doctors who’ve risen to prominence in their leadership positions and so I thought, by golly, if business fables are good enough for them, then I better get over myself and get on board.
Well that’s a terrific story and you know I was joking before, but not much. You just got to get the people to kind of erase the social norm which is “if we’re really well educated, we’re above this kind of stuff” and get them to relax in a social setting and their brains take over and their brains love this stuff. That’s very good.
Glad to hear that, so could you maybe share with us what is a little bit of the core story or key lessons coming out of the book – That’s Not How We Do It Here.
Well as the title suggests the world changes on these meerkats in some fundamental ways and they’re typical in the sense that they’re a mature, successful group and they handle these basic changes the way mature, successful groups tend to which unfortunately doesn’t get them much.
It makes things worse rather than better. They cling to how they do it because that has worked; it’s very predictable how this goes.
So lesson one is the world is changing in more fundamental ways, it’s not just rumour and number two is mature, good organisations much less bad ones tend to handle that very poorly. They handle being reliable and efficient not being fast and rigorous in the face of new conditions.
But I think alot of us have I don’t know if it’s an idealistic notion that what we need is this really kind of cool, rapid low policy and rule organizations kind of like an internet start-up and we can just turn our big mature businesses into that. Well that doesn’t work either because those guys have some advantages and disadvantages and what the world needs now is a combination of the two working together. That is possible and there’s a way to get from here to there even though there are a lot of barriers and the story is about all of that. What people take from, you say what’s the fundamental message?
One of the things we learned back when we wrote the iceberg book is different people took away different fundamental lessons based upon their own histories and who they were. That’s one of the other advantages of this format. We can already see in the emails we’re getting where people have read the meerkat book. But it’s all about very basic stuff, very basic problems that people are facing and working people are facing and some big answers about it doesn’t have to be this way and how you can work your way out of it.
Well that’s exactly where I want to go next. So you are kind of the world’s leading authority on change management stuff and so it’s an honor to have you and thank you again. So I’d like to hear you’ve got sort of an eight step process when it comes to making change happen could you give us a little bit of a march through that?
This is all based on a lot of study on a lot of organisations over the years. We discovered that the people that were particularly good at taking on big initiatives and actually achieving them in a tight timeframe and have them stick managed to get a sense of urgency around the need for change upfront.
A very high sense of urgency much higher than the complacency that you saw and see in organizations and then they put together a group of people who were powerful enough or strong enough or confident enough to be able to make something difficult happen and those folks would in light of their situation clarify what is our vision of what we’re trying to do, communicate that in tons of different ways to help people understand it and go beyond understanding that they actually buy into it and then create conditions that would enable anybody that wants to grab that vision and run with it in their particular domain that they are enabled to do it and they’re inspired and motivated.
They actually get wins not just energy and activity but solid successes and this keeps up over a period of time. You don’t just get a couple of successes declare victory and go home but you keep kind of winning and winning and winning until it’s stable once again in a new configuration. You’re actually doing something in a new way that does work that makes sense under the circumstances and then actually paying attention to let’s make sure this is going to stick – has it sunk in enough, is it consistent with other ways we do things or is it too dependent upon the current leader? If he leaves it’s going back to the way it was so it’s kind of what we call institutionalization. That process you find again and again when you have particularly successful changes in organizations.
Thank you for that. So can you walk us through an example here starting with the urgency and all the way through institutionalizing the change in an organization? I imagine you have so many of them so if I can be choosy I might ask for something that changed the culture of a workplace such that it was less toxic and more helpful to employees. I don’t know if I’m getting too specific but if you have an example somewhere in that ballpark kind of walk it through how these eight steps unfolded.
Sure, I can think of one. So this was a workgroup within a larger organization and I don’t know where it started I don’t think it was even the department head who first jumped on to this but somebody that reported to her that was relatively new within the organisation who said “I can’t believe it we’ve got some good people here and it’s not a bad company. Obviously I wouldn’t have joined if I thought otherwise. But I’m having trouble getting out of my car in the morning in the parking lot which means there’s something wrong here.
“There’s something about the culture of this group that is just creepy and it doesn’t make us feel good, it gets into the way because it doesn’t make us feel good.
“I’m not the only person kind of sitting out in their car wondering if they should go into work.”
He started talking to some of his colleagues about this – didn’t win overwhelming enthusiasm at first, but some other people, it’s amazing, would say “you know, you’re right.”
So they started talking it up more and more and at some point the word reaches the department head and they found some way to basically position it that wasn’t an attack on the bosses.
It was more of a matter of “we’ve got some great people and we’ve got an opportunity to do so much more we think with this. Some history that goes far beyond anybody here has created what we are, that’s normal, why can’t we create something that is really a terrific place to work that makes people feel good that makes people want to jump out of their cars and come in in the morning.”
And I don’t know how much the boss really believed this was a great idea but she went along and they started talking to a other people and a few other people got excited about this and then they again, with the boss’s permission, three or four of them became the core group to drive this.
Not as a committee and not as a project because what they’re really doing is helping provide leadership to make something happen and they tried articulating – “What do we mean more than what I just told you here? What would, to use your term, a non-toxic environment look like which comes into the view of kind of vision?”
And they wrote something down and then showed it to a few people and they kind of revised it until they started getting some people who said “this would be good” and again the boss I frankly don’t know how much she was really convinced this would be a big deal but it was hard to argue with. Especially since they weren’t attacking her as we’ve got a problem and you know you’re the boss, you’re the idiot that created it. So she started saying “we’ve got some folks that are providing some initiative on this and I think this is a great idea.”
So she gave them some latitude and they picked out a few very specific things that they could do. Underline do, not just talk – do. “So if we were non-toxic what kind of actions would people take to make this healthy, exciting, fun and they invented a few projects to make sure the boss didn’t think these were goofy things, didn’t ask by the way for extra time – “we’re going to go half time on this cool project.” No, no they just did it somehow. Fit it into the workday because they got excited about it.
They succeeded because they really wanted to make it happen and it did create a certain aura around it that helped productivity because more people were wanting to come to work and be there and not hiding in their cubicles mumbling about the organization.
And that creates its own momentum and the boss actually communicated with some pride – what they were able to do and not quite a champagne celebration because it was a little thing but some notification and smiling and so they took a second one.
Then some other people said basically, “You know I’ve got an idea that we’ve got a stupid filing system that drives everybody crazy and it achieves nothing – why do we need to do it? Why do we do it? Well of course it traces back to something that had happened in 1943 that has no relevance today and so they try to figure out who’s in charge – nobody was in charge of that so they told the boss that this is getting into everybody’s way and yet it takes time to maintain this thing. Time wasted, nobody likes it, why can’t we get rid of it?
With some negotiation the boss said try it and people were astonished. All of a sudden they don’t have to keep this stupid thing going. So more smiles more feeling that work isn’t idiotic and so somebody else comes up with another project and it’s a series of kind of win-win-wins, more people being involved, a few setbacks, a few grumpy older colleagues. This is normal, this is life, you know.
It’s very easy to come up with sixteen reasons why things the way they are have a logic to it and don’t waste our time changing it and it actually got to the point where it went over the tipping point so to speak and the place felt differently and once that happened even more action takes place because people are in a new frame of mind and this doesn’t happen over three or four months but over the next couple of years.
And with the boss now starting to get some recognition from her boss that something obviously was happening down there. He could even see it from the metrics because productivity was going up, it not only changed but it became a new set of habits if you will that weren’t inadvertently toxic habits that kind of ground themselves into the culture. It takes some time, but there’s the pattern, get a little bit of urgency up there is an issue here and get the other group that really wants to focus on it and get some clarity about what the heck are we talking about and get some initiatives going, make sure they win and then cycle back.
Another initiative, another win, celebrate the whole thing and make sure that there’s nothing that ultimately that will be so dependent upon when they go back to just not paying attention it’s not going to evaporate on them. But this is not project management, this is not more task forces, this is not kind of a traditional way of managing a business or actually even managing change.
What this is all about ultimately is leadership. Not in the self of Roosevelt, Mandela, I mean it’s the kind of leadership that any of us can provide. We just don’t because we’re not asked to provide it; we’re not taught along the way that this should be part of our routine.
I mean if there’s anything in the world that I wish I had the magic wand or the gold fairy dust powerful enough to change in this world it would be to help people to understand that leadership is not the problem anymore of the few.
The only way we’re going to be able to adapt to increasing technologic change, climate change, name anything you care about it’s going to require lots and lots of this. Literally millions in some small way helping to provide the leadership to actually change things and the notion of “well I’m not charismatic, I look in the mirror and I don’t look like the great leader,” this has been drilled into your head by society since you probably young except for the high school graduation speech where they called you all leaders which was a joke and you’ve got to get that out of your head.
The idea is not for you to take over the CEO’s job or the Prime Minister’s job but to in your little arena think “I and some other people around me can provide leadership to produce a change that helps us leap into the future and by the way this will make me feel better, this will make my world and my life meaningful, this is good for me and my health.” So start changing your self image and get out there and provide leadership
Okay. I’d love to hear that. I’m thinking in particular about young professionals who are not the CEO or Director or maybe even Manager spot you know they can be individual contributors or with their first kinds of direct reports. What are the sort of very first steps? You’ve got a whole book about the first step – A Sense of Urgency but can you give us a view for how does one get that sense sort of up and going and permeating?
This is an excellent question and it’s going to sound like a dodge to say, my gut at this point is to say it depends upon who you are. In other words it’s hard to come up with universal generalizations, except read all of my books.
Besides that, where you are, the kind of organization you’re in, the kind of job you’re in will probably make some difference in terms of an intelligent first step. Besides just coming to grips psychologically with the fact that leadership is not just the job of the guy two levels or four levels up from you in an organization. That was a big lie that society pounded on all of us and then it’s a matter of trying something.
There are some people for example that I’ve known over the years who have looked for opportunities outside of work first to test things out in a lower risk environment – on some committee that is associated with their child’s school. There are organizations that basically help people with public speaking and you get a chance to go and learn and then try some things out. Because being able to talk in front of a group certainly helps you when you’re trying to provide leadership and alot of us are just naturally nervous about that. Doing it outside of work again, low risk. That’s one avenue I’ve seen people try.
Another avenue of course is to look around you at work and find somebody that you think – and it would usually be above you in the heirarchy, but not always – that you find yourself saying “I’d follow this person about anywhere.” Then start watching them more carefully and get beyond silly notions like “they’re charismatic and I’m not charismatic.” Stop it, stop it, stop it and whack yourself in the head when you think that.
Look at what they actually do that seems to add up and engender the feeling in you that this person is a good leader and then say to yourself where can I find an opportunity to take one of these things or two of these things and actually incorporate it into what I’m doing at work.
I mean it’s wonderful if you can actually find a person like that who could become a mentor but for a lot of people that’s just beyond their possibilities but for some cases I’ve seen it happen. That could be a very important part of somebody’s career. It’s not just generic mentoring; it’s mentoring around specifically how you can grow as a leader.
I think for some people an opportunity comes along, there is some new big strategic initiative and they just wave their hand in the air until somebody notices and says listen I’d be willing to work on this and work on this above and beyond. This not just I’ll do my job but I’d like to help out and they talk their way in the door and they use this thing which is already set up and designed for coming up with and executing some kind of a change which is a natural setting for people to be demanded essentially that they provide some leadership. To start looking for opportunities in an environment where leadership is not being stomped down because it is a strategic initiative that is going to demand change.
Sometimes that comes along so what I’m saying is it’s kind of scanning your environment and asking yourself where are the opportunities for me to take a step outside of work, just observing a great leader, a coach, a new initiative and use your common sense and grab what is available and go with it and then grab the second thing that’s available and you will grow.
Okay, thank you. I’d love to take about one minute or so to think about when it comes to sort of the internal emotional experience of this whether you’re initiating the change and doing some leading and kind of maybe frightened about it or you’re kind of receiving the change and kind of annoyed or irritated like “I think what we did before was just fine.” What are some of your pro tips or research based best practices in terms of doing that self emotional management and flourishing amidst the changing environment.
That’s a very good question because the reality is most of us at some level or even if we don’t acknowledge it when peers come and go when change is coming at us there’s at least a little piece of us that gets scared or if it’s being imposed on us in really awful jackboot ways we get anger which doesn’t necessarily direct us to be the most effective. One of the things that I try to do probably not effectively personally is I talk to my wife and she knows me very well and I say, “This is what’s happening. You know me. Am I helping? Am I not helping? Are there some things?’ And she would be very blunt you know “no John, you’re being a jerk and this isn’t helping a lot and you’re probably being a jerk because it’s pushing you out of your comfort zone and yet what they’re trying to do makes an awful lot of sense at least in the way you described it.”
So it’s getting, it’s not just relying in my case I’m saying, don’t just rely on yourself because some people are really good at being reflective and seeing what’s happening around them and what’s happening inside of them and drawing good conclusions. A lot of us are not terrific at that and if you can find somebody, it could be a good friend or somebody at work who’s a really really good friend and that’s ideal and being very candid about it. “You know this is what’s happening, what do you see? How do you see me reacting? Is it obvious to you how I’m feeling and is this driving me in a way that’s helping?” I’ve found that to be very useful.
Cool thank you. Before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things is there anything that you just want to make sure that we get out there first?
Just that it’s almost trite to say that the world is changing to the point where I don’t think we really understand or do much about it. Because the reality is that last week is not that much different from this week and that’s what we experience. Our experience are rarely, unless something very dramatic happens, that enormous continuity. The best indicator of your behavior tomorrow, for example, is your behavior today. That’s just what social psychologists have found and it’s tough sometimes to take a step back and see the broad sweep of things. You know what has happened over the last five years. If we could I think maybe not everybody but almost all of us would discover that things are not only changing but they’re changing faster and we have got to do something about that if we want to have a terrific career and a terrific life.
With change comes opportunity and maybe that’s something that I haven’t talked about here much but once you get out of change as a potential source of hazard or change that is a real threat and start seeing it for what it also is. Is whenever you shake things up new opportunities appear and a lot of the more successful people in the world of course are lucky but they’re lucky in that they’re able to not just when new opportunities came along but they were able to see them when other people were not alert and let them slide by. So I would say start thinking more of opportunities, start letting your brain focus more with what one might call opportunity thinking because they are out there. They are around you even in crummy organizations in crummy jobs and in a changing world you will find them and that can be the beginning of an adventure which, trust me, is going to involve leadership which you will learn more and more about that can make a big difference in your life. Think opportunity.
Okay, I will, thank you. So now could you start us off by sharing a favorite quote – something that you find inspiring.
Well I find – about a hundred things that Winston Churchill said during the 1939-1945 period incredibly inspiring. The Brits were under horrible, horrible, horrible conditions where their whole civilization could’ve been wiped out basically and he provided the leadership with lots and lots of other people that he kind of inspired into it to make what looked at times like something that was hopeless to turn around and they won.
It’s easy to find Churchill quotes, go into the internet and just put down Churchill quotations or something like that you’ll find not one but dozens of really cool things. If you’ve never done that I urge you to do that.
Okay, thank you. How about a favorite tool? Something that you use often that boosts your effectiveness?
If you took away my Iphone I would probably crawl up into a small ball and die.
Okay well we won’t, we won’t. And how about a favorite habit or practice of yours that has been helpful?
I stay on a pretty regular schedule in terms of getting up and going to bed and I’m a morning person so I get up very early and I even do that on weekends and then go to bed at a regular time. This one regimen I’ve had the funny feeling helped create a certain stability in a life that can be pretty unstable especially when you’re doing new things all the time. That helps me, kind of an oddity, maybe it’s very personal but that’s for me.
What would you say is the best place to find you if folks want to learn more and check out your stuff?
Probably go to the Kotter International website (http://www.kotterinternational.com/) and there’s some cool stuff on there that isn’t just trying to sell you anything. It’s trying to help people to understand what’s going on these days and it also has an easy way to get in contact with me and my people will actually pass that on. So if you get an answer it’s not some junior staff person it’s actually me.
Cool, thank you. And do you have a parting sort of challenge or call to action you would issue to those seeing to be more awesome at their jobs?
Well it’s a piece of advice and I’ve already said it about four times. I’m telling you I’ve researched and thought about this a long time that if you start thinking about yourself the part of your life and part of your job and part of your responsibility as a parent or a friend is to help provide some leadership to situations that are changing more and more, you will get better at it and it will make a difference and it will make you feel better and life feel more meaningful beyond what you can imagine right now. So I’m telling you try it. Think! Lead! Lead! Lead!
I’m sold, thank you. Well John this has been so much fun, thank you for taking the time and I just hope you had tons of luck with Kotter International and your teaching and your books and all of the cool things you’re doing here.
Well I appreciate that.