In 1964, singer-songwriter Bob Dylan famously wrote, “the times they are a-changin’.” And the pace of that change has continued to accelerate since that song was written. Businesses need to be more agile and change-friendly than ever before. Today’s business leaders must be able to successfully lead change initiatives to stay ahead of trends and the competition (Kotter, 2012). Change is the only way businesses will survive (Phillips & Klein, 2022).
Fortunately, there are many approaches business leaders can use to influence change in their organizations (Phillips & Klein, 2022). The first real contribution to change management was developed by Kurt Lewin, who popularized a three-step planned approach to change in 1951. This approach required top managers to plan and project the change from the top of the organization. Lewin described the organizational change process as unfreezing, moving and acting, then refreezing in a new form (Ratana et al., 2020). This top-down, management-driven approach to change has worked for businesses for nearly four decades.
Lewin’s top-down, planned approach to change management, however, proved ineffective with the pace of environmental, technological, and organizational change in the 1990s. In 1991, Arnold Judson, a strategic management consultant, expanded Lewin’s work into a five-phase step-by-step model, which included analysis, communication, gaining acceptance, changing from the status quo, and consolidating the new conditions (Ratana et al., 2020). This five-step model led to many other multi-step change management models, such as Kanter’s ten commandments, Hamel’s eight-step insurrection method, and Luecke’s seven steps of managing change (Ratana et al., 2020).
During this renaissance period of process-driven change management programs, John Kotter launched his eight-stage leading change method in 1996 (Ratana et al., 2020). This method became the best-known (Kang et al., 2022) and most influential approach in the change practitioner community (McLaren et al., 2022). Kotter’s approach was mainly adopted from his observations as a consultant and Kanter’s ten commandments (Ratana et al., 2020). Kotter was also heavily influenced by Lewin’s unfreeze-change-freeze methodology, as evidenced by the penguin and iceberg metaphors in his writings (McLaren et al., 2022).
Kotter’s eight stages included establishing a sense of urgency, creating a powerful guiding coalition, developing a vision and strategy, communicating the change vision, empowering broad-based action, generating short-term wins, consolidating gains and producing more change, and anchoring new approaches in the culture (Kotter, 2012). The stages are meant to be followed in rigid order, although Kotter later revised this idea in 2014, acknowledging that the steps can also be run concurrently (McLaren et al., 2022).
Even though Kotter’s model is practitioner-based, not robustly founded in theory, and has been criticized as “pop-management,” it has been highly influential in academic literature, widely used in change management education, and is commonly deployed in change management efforts (McLaren et al., 2022). Kotter’s model was developed with consultancy-based observations but has been accepted as a “recommendable reference” in academic literature. (McLaren et al., 2022).
Kotter’s change model has been deployed in various industries but has been especially successful in guiding change in higher education settings, specifically for dealing with administrative and technical changes (Kang et al., 2022). Kang et al. (2022) documented its use in a three-year change process in an engineering department at a university in the southwestern United States. They concluded that with some modifications, Kotter’s model worked well in an institutional setting. They found a non-linear approach to be more effective and integrated ideas from the design-based implementation research (DBIR) model (Kang et al., 2022).
Other modifications have been suggested to Kotter’s model as well. McLaren et al. (2022) suggest that “establishing a sense of urgency” can create anxiety and stress in employees and ultimately lead to increased resistance to change. Instead of vilifying the status quo, they recommend emphasizing the things from the status quo that will remain the same after the change initiative. In this manner, employees can have a firm anchor and reference point, reducing stress and increasing acceptance of the change (McLaren et al., 2022).
Kang, S. P., Chen, Y., Svihla, V., Gallup, A., Ferris, K., & Datye, A. K. (2022). Guiding change in higher education: An emergent, iterative application of Kotter’s change model. Studies in Higher Education (Dorchester-on-Thames), 47(2), 270-289. doi:10.1080/03075079.2020.1741540
Kotter, J. P. (2012). Leading change. Harvard Business Review Press.
McLaren, T. A. S., van der Hoorn, B., & Fein, E. C. (2022). Why vilifying the status quo can derail a change effort: Kotter’s contradiction, and theory adaptation. Journal of Change Management, ahead-of-print(ahead-of-print), 1-19. doi:10.1080/14697017.2022.2137835
Phillips, J., & Klein, J. D. (2022). Change management: From theory to practice. TechTrends, 67(1), 189-197. doi:10.1007/s11528-022-00775-0
Ratana, S., Raksmey, C., & Danut, D. (2020). Conceptualizing a framework: A critical review of the development of change management theories. Studies in Business and Economics (Romania), 15(2), 205-214. doi:10.2478/sbe-2020-0035
Note: This paper was written as part of my requirements for a Doctorate in Strategic Leadership at Liberty University. I’m sharing this here for those who may be interested in some of the theories of leadership. Let me know if you have any questions.
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