Leading Change, by John Kotter, feels very corporate and a little dated. It seems to be aimed at bigger changes than what I’ve had occasion to help steer — big merges or reorganizations, for example. So a lot of it felt like it wasn’t super useful to me all the way through, but there’s plenty to learn from it.

I’ve heard and read a bit lately about the distinction between management and leadership, and this book reinforces that distinction. Management is more tactical and leadership more transformative and strategic. I think this is a useful distinction. A relevant quote:

Management is a set of processes that can keep a complicated system of people and technology running smoothly. The most important aspects of management include planning, budgeting, organizing, staffing, controlling, and problem solving. Leadership is a set of processes that creates organizations in the first place or adapts them to significantly changing circumstances. Leadership defines what the future should look like, aligns people with that vision, and inspires them to make it happen despite the obstacles

The big errors in change management:

  1. Allowing too much complacency.
  2. Failing to create a sufficiently powerful guiding coalition.
  3. Underestimating the power of vision.
  4. Undercommunicating the vision by a factor of 10 or more.
  5. Permitting obstacles to block the new vision.
  6. Failing to create short-term wins.
  7. Declaring victory too soon.
  8. Neglecting to anchor changes firmly in the corporate culture.

And the steps to avoid those errors are:

establishing a sense of urgency, creating the guiding coalition, developing a vision and strategy, communicating the change vision, empowering a broad base of people to take action, generating short-term wins, consolidating gains and producing even more change, and institutionalizing new approaches in the culture.

The single most useful chapter in the book was the one on vision. It’s worth a read on its own even if the whole change process prescribed seems like overkill. High points are that if the vision is super clear and can be articulated simply, then it’s easy for people at all levels in the company to make decisions about what actions they should perform and why it’s important to do so. A vision that is clear about what it offers and what the tradeoffs are for all stakeholders (including employees) is more likely to be successful than one that alienates some of the stakeholders.

Key elements in the effective communication of vision (this is all quoted directly from a table in the book):

  • Simplicity: All jargon and technobabble must be eliminated.
  • Metaphor, analogy, and example: A verbal picture is worth a thousand words.
  • Multiple forums: Big meetings and small, memos and newspapers, formal and informal interaction—all are effective for spreading the word.
  • Repetition: Ideas sink in deeply only after they have been heard many times.
  • Leadership by example: Behavior from important people that is inconsistent with the vision overwhelms other forms of communication.
  • Explanation of seeming inconsistencies: Unaddressed inconsistencies undermine the credibility of all communication.
  • Give-and-take: Two-way communication is always more powerful than one-way communication.

Of vision at a high level, the author says that “whenever you cannot describe the vision driving a change initiative in five minutes or less and get a reaction that signifies both understanding and interest, you are in for trouble.” This rings very true to me. I think that if you haven’t shared a vision that anybody whose work you supervise and who is sufficiently engaged in the work (and who is in the right job) can summarize briefly and feel proud to be working toward, you haven’t communicated it effectively.

Here’s a really great quote about communicating vision effectively:

Contrast these two scenarios: In case A, the new vision is introduced as part of three speeches at the annual management meeting and is the subject of three articles in the company newspaper, for a grand total of six repeats over a six-month period. In case B, each of the firm’s twenty-five executives pledges to find four opportunities per day to tie conversations back to the big picture. So when Hiro is meeting with his top twenty people to review monthly results versus plan, he asks that all decisions be evaluated in light of the new vision, which he repeats. When Gloria does performance evaluations for her employees, she ties her assessments to major change initiatives. When Jan conducts a Q and A at a plant, he answers the first inquiry by saying: “I think yes, but let me explain why. The vision directing our change efforts is . . .” The net result: twenty-five executives, four times a day, over six months equals more than 12,000 repeats. Six versus 12,000.

The book also talks a bit about culture, which is difficult to change and which actually tends to change after actions in support of big changes have been changed. Culture shift comes late in the change management process. (And to be clear, this doesn’t mean that we must decide what nefarious changes we wish to make and then bend the culture to them after we’ve rammed the changes through — the vision that informs the change should consider culture tradeoffs, as employees who participate in the culture are also stakeholders in the vision.)

I’d recommend the book for anybody who is struggling to communicate a clear vision and make progress toward it, especially if that vision requires change that’s likely to be tricky to navigate. The book doesn’t offer much in the way of immediate cure-all solutions, and some of the information it purveys is very high level, but on the whole, it’s a useful read.