The Heart of Change (review)

The single most important message in this book is very simple. People change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings.

That are the first two sentences in the book. It maps well to "motivate the elephant" and "shape the path" ideas in Switch. Humans usually rationalize their emotional decisions instead of deciding rationally. Meanwhile, change initiatives (especially lead by nerdy software developers) focus on facts and arguments. Then they wonder about the lack of engagement.

Large-Scale Change in 8 Steps

Kotter's book is considered as pragmatic because it provides 8 steps you can follow:

  1. Increase urgency: People start telling each other, "Let's go, we need to change things!"
  2. Build the guiding team: A group powerful enough to guide a big change is formed and they start to work together well.
  3. Get the vision right: The guiding team develops the right vision and strategy for the change effort.
  4. Communicate for buy-in: People begin to buy into the change, and this shows in their behavior.
  5. Empower action: More people feel able to act, and do act, on the vision.
  6. Create short-term wins: Momentum builds as people try to fulfill the vision, while fewer and fewer resist change.
  7. Don't let up: People make wave after wave of changes until the vision is fulfilled.
  8. Make change stick: New and winning behavior continues despite the pull of tradition, turnover of change leaders, etc.

Kotter oversimplifies and in the book he acknowledges that. There is no clear separation between the steps in practice. They overlap. Anyways, it provides structure and that is reassuring for big fuzzy goal like intentionally changing the culture of an organization. Kotter listened to hundreds of stories and that might be the best data available so far.

Maybe the most important point of the eight steps is that people hurry through them too quickly. Some start with the vision (step 3) lacking urgency and a guiding team, for example. Consider going back to step 1 or 2 to build a better foundation.

1. Increase Urgency

The most useful story in this chapter is maybe The Videotape of the Angry Customer. The title says what they did. The effect was a boost of motivation for a complacent company. Before people thought things were fine but after listing to an angry person for half an hour that belief was hard to keep.

Note that Kotter writes urgency, not importance. It is easy to lose track of an important activity due to more urgent tasks.

How many people do you need to persuade about the urgency? Probably more than you think.

In smaller organizations, the "relevant" are more likely to number 100 than 5, in larger organizations 1,000 rather than 50. The less successful change leaders aim at 5 or 50 or 0, allowing what is common nearly everywhere–too much complacency, fear, or anger, all three of which can undermine change.

It certainly isn't enough to get just the top management or just the practitioners.

2. Build the Guiding Team

Building a team to implement the change follows an intuitive pattern: It starts with one motivated individual. More individuals are selected for all the necessary aspects. Those individuals are turned into a team. For large organizations, you will need sub-teams at some point.

The tricky part is to select the right people. You need relevant knowledge from outside to create the vision, enough power inside the organization, the knowledge how the organization works, formal authority and skills for planning/organization/control, and leadership skills. This implies that top management and low level workers and everything in between is necessary. Unfortunately, top management likes to delegate it because "Those are the people who understand the technology. So they must be in charge." Unfortunately, "those" lack the authority, so they get no support because "If this change is so important, why aren't the real bosses guiding the effort?"

Realizing the problems with individuals and weak committees, frustrated systems consultants are often pushed into creating complex governance structures full of sponsors, cross-functional task forces, ownership teams or owners, and the like. These complex structures are usually an improvement over a single weak committee, which is why people use them. But this approach usually works poorly. Complicated governance systems are never at the core of the enterprise, where the real power lies. They are overlays on top of the existing formal and informal relationships that make the organization function. Using this approach is like sitting on the roof of a house and trying to stick an incredibly complex mechanism down the chimney to move the furniture around. Also, all too often these overlays are staffed by people who already have full-time jobs. When these people discover that the structure will not work well and that they will receive little credit for their extra effort, they often invest a minimum of time and energy. Without that investment, the structure works even less well. And complex overlays usually add much too much bureaucracy. That slows down decision making. At the extreme, this begins to look silly. It's rather like a family whose problem is that the children need new skills, and whose proposed solution is a project team at the state's Child Services Agency working in conjunction with the Department of Education and the Governor's Task Force on New Skills.

So, make sure to have a complete guiding team. While it is incomplete, go back to step 1 and raise the urgency. Once the team is sufficiently complete, you can go to step 3 which has started in the head of the initiating individual already.

3. Get the vision right

Actually, this chapter is not only about the vision, but also about strategy, planning, and budgets.

Without a good budget, you can run out of money. Without a sensible plan, you can run out of time. Without a good strategy you can find yourself painted into a corner. Without a good vision, you can choose a bad direction and never realize that you've done so. You will have difficulty coordinating large numbers of people without using endless directives. You'll never get the energy needed to accomplish something very difficult. Strategic plans motivate few people, but a compelling vision can appeal to the heart and motivate anyone.

This chapter could also be named alignment or focus. Sometimes a change movement appears under a vague topic like "Agile" but everybody assigns a different meaning to it. Once you get down to planning, those inconsistencies become visible and can be resolved.

Steps 4 to 8

The middle steps are the more intuitive ones and so this review will not explore them further.

One aspect worth emphasizing: The cultural change is the last step. Sure, if you could change the culture the desirable behavior would emerge naturally, but it only seems to work the other round in practice.

A culture truly changes only when a new way of operating has been shown to succeed over some minimum period of time. Trying to shift the norms and values before you have created the new way of operating does not work. The vision can talk of a new culture. But those new behaviors will not become norms, will not take hold, until the very end of the process.

This approach is mirrored in Turn the Ship Around!:

When you're trying to change employees' behavior, you have basically two approaches to choose from: change your own thinking and hope this leads to new behavior, or change your behavior and hope this leads to new thinking. On board the Santa Fe, the officers and I did the latter, acting our way to new thinking. –David Marquet

Culture emerges when behavior in an organization is consistent for a while. It petrifies the behavior patterns. This is good because you need less energy to sustain them now. It is bad if the environment changes and the behaviors need to be adapted again.

Who should read the book?

If you are in a large-scale change initiative, I recommend to read this. It provides the 8 steps as a check list and explains the nuances which don't fit into a review. The steps are only based on anecdotal evidence but it is still the best structure I know.

If you look for scientific evidence, this book is not for you. It only contains anecdotes and does not bother with references to studies or anything. Switch is the book for you but is also more general and not particularly focused on large-scale cultural change.

If you love stories, Turn the Ship Around! is one big story about changing the culture of a submarine. It could also serve as a better substitute for step 5 "empower action".

Change initiatives succeed in stages building on each other.