Leading change: Why transformation efforts fail

The chances of success improve if you realize that change usually takes a long time


Businesses hoping to survive over the long term will have to remake themselves into better competitors at least once along the way.

These efforts have gone under many banners: total quality management, re-engineering, rightsizing, restructuring, cultural change, and turnarounds, to name a few. In almost every case, the goal has been to cope with a new, more challenging market by changing the way business is conducted. A few of these endeavors have been very successful. A few have been utter failures. Most fall somewhere in between, with a distinct tilt toward the lower end of the scale.

John P. Kotter is renowned for his work on leading organizational change. In 1995, when this article was first published, he had just completed a 10-year study of more than 100 companies that attempted such a transformation. Here he shares the results of his observations, outlining the eight largest errors that can doom these efforts and explaining the general lessons that encourage success.

Unsuccessful transitions almost always founder during at least one of the following phases: generating a sense of urgency, establishing a powerful guiding coalition, developing a vision, communicating the vision clearly and often, removing obstacles, planning for and creating short-term wins, avoiding premature declarations of victory, and embedding changes in the corporate culture.

The chances of success improve if you realize that change usually takes a long time, Kotter says.

John P. Kotter is the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership, Emeritus at Harvard Business School and the Chief Innovation Officer at Kotter International, a firm that helps leaders accelerate strategy implementation in their organizations.

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