Change Agent

By February 13, 2019March 18th, 2019Army ALT Magazine, Best Practices
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Change happens because people find that the changes work for them. In its quest for modernization, the Army can learn a great deal from one of the world’s leading authorities on organizational development.

by Michael Bold

Few have studied more intensely the way that organizations large and small navigate through times of great change than Dr. John P. Kotter. First as a professor at Harvard Business School, and now as a professor emeritus and as co-founder and chairman of Kotter International, a consulting company he started in the wake of the overwhelming response to his research, he has become the go-to authority on leadership and change. His 20 books have sold millions of copies in over 150 languages.

His goal, as Kotter International’s website puts it, is to “help mobilize people around the world to better lead organizations in an era of increasingly rapid change.” As the U.S. Army stands up the Army Futures Command, and Army acquisition enters a period of profound change aimed at getting better capabilities to Soldiers faster, Army AL&T talked with Kotter in October about change and leadership. Kotter is not an expert on the military, but Army leadership’s sense of urgency and resolve impresses him.

“When it comes down to tactics, what we’ve learned … is that if you get a group of people who understand the basic argument—in [the Army’s] case, how much the world has changed since the traditional system for acquiring new systems, weapon systems and the like, and the time horizon that was acceptable, how much that is out of line with current reality—that’s something really … the word ‘revolutionary’ is not a big overstatement.”

Kotter warns, though, that even the best of intentions to face reality can be overwhelmed by today’s rapidly evolving technologies. “Everything needs to be accelerated to put up with just the speed with which [technology evolves] and the uncertainties and the less capacity to predict that we have today versus 10 years ago, much less versus 50 years ago or further,” he told Army AL&T.

In the interview, Kotter elaborated on the requirements necessary for leading change successfully.


To lead an organization in a time of change, creating a sense of urgency is vital. Maintaining that sense of urgency is just as important as creating it, Kotter said.

“How often do people get stalled in producing the size of change at the speed they want these days?” he asked. “And the answer continues to be all the time, especially for large and complex and old institutions. And it’s just because it’s tough. Large and old and complex institutions have structures and policies and systems and culture and all kinds of habits, and a staff that thinks a certain way. And changing all that in a significant way toward something that makes sense in terms of the current or the anticipated future environment is just tough. And people start making it tougher by getting it wrong, right at the beginning, by creating far too little sense of real urgency around whatever the critical issues are.”

Warning your workforce that it’s change or die doesn’t work without also outlining a vision for the future, Kotter said. Sometimes you have to blow an air horn to wake up a slumbering workforce. “But blowing an air horn in their ear the third time and then the 20th time and then the 600th time doesn’t work,” he said. “All they’ll do is focus on trying to stop you and your air horn. They won’t be paying any attention to whatever the real issues are.” That creates an anxiety-driven false sense of urgency, he said.


That sense of urgency can’t be limited to agreeing that something is wrong with an organization, Kotter said. Leaders also need to point the way to better times ahead. “What our consultants have learned is that they want to get to work with an organization to get masses of people to the point where they think, a) yes, something has to change, and b) there’s the real actual opportunity out there. That is to say, if we make the change, that things will be better. … This isn’t just a running away from, it’s a running to something. If the employee believes that the vision makes sense and is excited about it, they will be willing to step up to the plate and help.”

Once an adequate number of people in the organization are buying into the vision, Kotter said, “what we have found is that you’ve got the conditions started from which you can do a lot of other stuff. But at least you’ve got the conditions that aren’t going to lead you to take off, to think that indeed you’re making great progress, and then to discover that everything kind of slows down on you because in the background people either think this isn’t necessary or this is stupid or it’s not my job or a million other reasons why they inadvertently don’t help, or become blockers.”

To help leaders develop a clear, coherent vision for the future, Kotter developed a five-minute rule. “A good vision can be explained, and explained in a way that’s clear enough and also emotionally compelling enough, without 53 PowerPoint slides. It can be done verbally in a relatively short period of time, we discovered—hence that so-called five-minute rule.” If the leader couldn’t explain the vision in five minutes, “it usually meant that it was just not clear in their own heads, which means their capacity to communicate it and make it clear in anybody else’s heads, much less get them excited about it, just wasn’t there. Because a vision is not an operating plan.”


Enlisting an army of true believers is vital to effecting real change, Kotter said. Develop a group of people who buy into the need for change and who want to be a part of it, and organize them in a way that enables them “to become your first phalanx of folks out there spreading the word.” And don’t just use them as an echo chamber, he said, but sound them out for ways to get to the desired goal. “They can come up with ideas that you and I would never dream of that are relevant within their context and within the culture that they’re in.” That, in turn, gets other people’s attention and “gets them moving toward that feeling of ‘we got to do something,’ and this is too important. … And they start infecting or attracting more and more people and it just kind of grows, and more and more people help out, coming up with more ideas to attract more people.

“The whole thing eventually gets to the point where, like I say, you’ve got huge numbers of people with a real sense of urgency around the relevant issue, and you’ve got something that you can build off of and has some real chance of a) producing change and, b), producing sustainable change that doesn’t just get pushed back by the forces of history.”


A strong vision for the future of an organization doesn’t do any good if you don’t let people know what it is, Kotter said. “Number one is forget the fantasy that four people in a communications department is going to do it for you. You want to start with as many people who kind of understand it and can talk about it as your initial team, and you want that to grow. But you want as many people as humanly possible talking about this. There is no such thing as undercommunicating on this stuff.”

Every meeting, every encounter, every group email is an opportunity to explain your vision, Kotter said. “You get people to understand, to buy in, when you get enough music played loud and long enough in surround sound. Surround sound is in a sense they hear it from their peers, they hear it from their bosses, and they start to hear it from their subordinates. … You get the music played on a regular basis and in surround sound and growing in terms of how many speakers you got out there that are actually blasting it out, and you’ve got a chance then of being able to catch people’s attention and win over their hearts and minds on this.”


Organizations, when looking to move in a new direction, often say they want to change their culture. Indeed, culture change is often at the top of the list of organization objectives. But Kotter says the very nature of culture means that it will be the last thing an organization can change.

“Culture is air. It’s mist,” he said. “Good luck trying to grab it and twist it into some new form.” Kotter points to the 30 years following World War II, when anthropologists discovered islands in the South Pacific that had had no contact with modern technology or civilization. Anthropologists studied how these groups made decisions on feeding their families, seeking shelter and solving conflict.

“When they started studying how cultures came about, the pattern was very clear,” he said. “You’d have a group of people who would come together, they would start trying to focus on some task, which could be anywhere from living together or building something or holding a social event. If the way they went about doing that task actually worked … they said, yeah, this worked, we’re doing fine. They would then either repeat it or repeat it with some small improvements. And this kind of rinse-and-repeat cycle over time would start to create what we call behavioral norms, which is just the way people did things. I mean, nobody had to keep reinventing this stuff; after a while it became a habit. This is how we fish, this is how we build huts.”

Eventually, Kotter said, these ways of performing tasks became the group’s culture—norms of behavior and underlying assumptions or beliefs about what is good, what is bad and what is valued or not valued, that are shared by a group of people.

“Culture changes the same way,” he said. Groups are either unsatisfied with current practices or think there might be a better way. “That’s step one. Step two is if it works and it’s pretty unambiguous that indeed this produces a better result. They communicate that, there’s a little bit of cheering and high-fiving, and then you do your rinse and repeat.” Eventually the new habits replace the old, and the culture has changed.

“And, as it turns out, that exact same pattern is what we find when we study businesses or units of the government, or nonprofits or health or education or any organization,” Kotter said. “… So culture as a word can come up earlier in the discussion, but it’s not changing it. That happens all as a result of all these other actions.”


Leading change requires not just intellect, but emotion, too, Kotter said. “If there are principles that we have found that seem to cut across all industries, all sizes of organizations, public and private … one is that change happens because it’s not just a head exercise, it’s a head and a heart exercise. Change happens not just because people have to, because it’s their job, but because they want to.”

That emotional buy-in allows for the rapid change that today’s technologies require. “That’s why some of these startups, even when they grow to some size—not hundreds of people, but thousands of people—continue to move at speeds that seem incomprehensible to older organizations. It’s because they build, indeed, a solid management structure … but they don’t lose that kind of want-to, voluntary, into it for something emotional, network-type organization that helped get them started when they were very young.”

On the other end of the spectrum are organizations (such as the Army) that “keep the number of people who are in a sense empowered to help produce change small and controllable,” Kotter said, without recognizing that a strict hierarchical organization is “built much more to produce efficiencies and reliability just to get the job done. It wasn’t invented to change itself … or to invent radically new ideas that can do things radically better.”

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Kotter graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a B.S. in electrical engineering in 1968 and an M.S. in management in 1970. He then completed his Doctor of Business Administration in 1972 at Harvard Business School and joined the faculty. In 1981, at age 33, he received tenure and a full professorship, and was later named the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership. Kotter retired as a full-time faculty member from Harvard in 2001. In 2008, he co-founded Kotter International. (Among Kotter International’s early clients was the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker, Alabama, in 2009. As the war in Afghanistan intensified, Kotter helped the center create a strategy to successfully process a backlog of pilots through the training program.)

Kotter first received widespread attention in the spring of 1995, when his article, “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail,” was published in the Harvard Business Review. In very short order, the article jumped to the top of the Review’s reprint list.

A book, “Leading Change,” followed the next year, becoming an international best-seller. In 2011, Time magazine said “Leading Change” was one of the 25 most influential business management books ever written. In “Leading Change,” Kotter devised an eight-step process for change management and leadership (since updated in his 2014 book, “Accelerate”):

  • Create a sense of urgency: Help others see the need for change through a bold, aspirational opportunity statement that communicates the importance of acting immediately.
  • Build a guiding coalition: A volunteer army needs a coalition of effective people—born of its own ranks—to guide it, coordinate it and communicate its activities.
  • Form a strategic vision and initiatives: Clarify how the future will be different from the past and how you can make that future a reality through initiatives linked directly to the vision.
  • Enlist a volunteer army: Large-scale change can occur only when massive numbers of people rally around a common opportunity. They must be bought-in and urgent to drive change—moving in the same direction.
  • Enable action by removing barriers: Removing inefficient processes and hierarchies, for example, provides the freedom necessary to work across silos and generate real impact.
  • Generate short-term wins: Wins are the molecules of results. They must be recognized, collected and communicated—early and often—to track progress and energize volunteers to persist.
  • Sustain acceleration: Press harder after the first successes. Your increasing credibility can improve systems, structures and policies. Be relentless with initiating change after change until the vision is a reality.
  • Institute change: Articulate the connections between the new behaviors and organizational success, making sure they continue until they become strong enough to replace old habits.


MICHAEL BOLD provides contract support to the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center. He is a writer-editor for Network Runners Inc., with more than 30 years of editing experience at newspapers, including the McClatchy Washington Bureau, The Sacramento Bee, the San Jose Mercury News, the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of Missouri.

This article is published in the April-May 2019 issue of Army AL&T magazine.

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