The Heart of Change: Real-life stories of how people change their organisations

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The Heart of Change: Real-life stories of how people change their organisations

Kotter’s bestselling book Leading Change showed that most people did not handle large-scale change well, mainly because they had little exposure to successful transformations. From studying the successful companies, he developed his renowned eight-step formula for leading change.

Following the book’s publication, he received an invitation from Deloitte Consulting to work on a follow-up project based on 200 in-depth interviews with organisations to collect stories that could help people more deeply understand the eight-step formula.

The most instructive stories are included in this companion book, arranged in chapters against each step, with a summary of what works, what doesn’t work, advice and exercises to try.

“The core of the matter is always about changing the behaviour of people, and behaviour change happens in highly successful situations mostly by speaking to people’s feelings.” John P Kotter

Running through the book is the thesis that by far the most effective way to change people’s behaviour is to appeal to their emotions. While an emphasis on analysis and thought is a traditional and sometimes necessary business approach, without a high impact appeal to people’s emotions, the behaviour of employees won’t change, and the process will be derailed.

Kotter uses many interesting stories to illustrate his change steps including:

1.      Increase urgency:  Instead of producing a statistical report to highlight inefficiencies in purchasing habits at a company’s manufacturing sites, a student was set the task of gathering an example of every different type of glove, some the same but purchased at different prices, that were being bought for worker protection. These 424 gloves were priced and labelled and stacked up on the executive board room table. All the division presidents were invited to the room to witness first-hand the inefficiency and waste from just one item. A successful change programme, and sense of urgency, had begun.

2.      Build the guiding team: Trust can be one of the key elements that can make or break a successful team. In trying to create a new National Defence Force from the seven groups that made up the new South African Army, former bitter enemies were asked to work together. As they were professionals, a veneer of cooperation was presented at the first meeting. It was only at the second meeting when one leader took a risk and told the truth that no-one in his section wanted to change, and that he wouldn’t stand for it, that others also started to admit the truth. Slowly, over a series of camping trips in the wilderness, a new trust, based on honesty and true feelings, was formed.

3.      Get the vision right: It took a new leader of an aircraft assembly factory to take a bold move to get his vision in place. When he first arrived he focused on talking about improving quality, timing and cost. Some people made a bit of an effort, but mostly they ignored his arguments, feeling that things were too difficult to change, and the plant remained very inefficient. If parts weren’t available the aircraft moved along the production line anyway, and when the parts did arrive, were retro-fitted. The leader then changed his approach. He ruled that the plane would not move along the line until the highest quality was achieved, and all parts were in place. Employees thought he was crazy and that planes would never be delivered in time. Instead, the procurement team got motivated as they had never been before, quality went up and aircraft were delivered to customers early.

4.      Communicate for buy-in: Deeds speak volumes. One company, with a low-cost producer vision, decided to completely revamp their luxurious executive floor, with huge offices, expensive art and private bathrooms, turning it into a democratic space. Despite the anticipated expense, the new move resulted in lower operating costs, and vastly improved employee morale.

5.      Empower action: One ‘old school’ superintendent in a company was very resistant to change, and had great pride in the company’s products, rejecting any customer criticism. Instead of trying to replace him, he was placed in a customer’s business for six months to act as an inspector of products.  Despite his initial reluctance, he turned out to be the best inspector the customer had ever had. When he returned, his passion for improving products made him one of the best managers the company had. 

6.      Create short-term wins: Within local government, identifying that a state senator also owned a trucking company and was deeply frustrated by the 15 government forms he needed to fill in every year, meant that one change team were able to get the senior support they really needed.  Although the forms were not identified as a priority project, changing them demonstrated how effectively they worked, and secured the backing for other changes they really wanted to make.

7.       Don’t let up: One company uses action lab teams – where eight employees are taken off their jobs for six weeks to fix problems that are holding the organisation back. Using humour and a video skit to show the barriers the investment planning team faced from different character types – such as the Merchant of Fear or the People Protector, they were able to light-heartedly show senior managers how their own behaviour was causing problems.

8.      Make change stick: Getting people to come out of their silos, and recognise that their drug development process was not as successful as everyone thought, was a key focus for one change programme. The company then made this stick by ensuring that every new employee watches a creative video that takes them on a highway through the company showing how new products are developed. It is now often the new employees who remind existing managers that they should be talking to colleagues sooner rather than later about their new drugs in development.

In his conclusion, Kotter highlights the need for people to ‘See, Feel, Change’. If you can help people see a problem, or a solution to the problem, in a highly memorable and visual way they can engage with the issue and change their behaviour far more effectively than from reading a report.  This means that their negative feelings about change – anger, complacency, pessimism, cynicism – will be reduced, while their positive emotions – passion, faith, trust, urgency – will be increased.  With these different feelings, people will be able to have a change of heart, transform their behaviour, and step positively into the future.


About the authors
John P Kotter is internationally recognised as one of the foremost authorities on leadership and change. He is the author of eighteen books, twelve of them international bestsellers and was ranked by The Times as amongst the 50 most important business thinkers in the world. Kotter is Professor of Leadership, Emeritus, at Harvard Business School.

Dan S Kohen is the CEO of Stuart Advisory Services Group and a retired partner of Deloitte Consulting. He focuses on large-scale organisational change, and has over thirty five years consultation and industry experience.

“Never underestimate the power of a good story – as Kotter and Cohen testify in this highly readable sequel to Kotter’s groundbreaking Leading Change.” Publishers Weekly

Book Details

Author: John P. Kotter and Dan S. Cohen

ISBN: 978-1422187333