Leading Change

Reviewed by: 
John P. Kotter
Harvard Business School Press
Alistair Schofield, Managing Director, Extensor Limited

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Throughout my business life I have found I have had a natural aversion to anyone mentioning “change management”. I regard the phrase as an oxymoron, in that I see change as being an aspect of leadership, not management. As a result I have read very few books on change until recently, when I doing some was research into the subject. Of the books I read, two things struck me. The first was that the vast majority seemed to want to convert change into a logical process that could be managed, thereby justifying the term “change management”. The second was that John Kotter’s book “Leading Change” stood out for precisely the reason that he dismisses the notion that change is about management. As he says, “successful transformation is 70 to 90 percent leadership and only 10 to 30 percent management.”

Since this quote from the book was in Chapter 1, it is unsurprising that I felt a sense of affinity with the book, but my reasons for liking it run much deeper. The first is that Kotter wrote the book on the basis of personal experience. Although he is an academic at Harvard Business School, the book does not draw on other sources to bolster its arguments and conclusions, but is a very personal account of what one of the world’s foremost business thinkers has witnessed himself through many years of exposure to companies.

My second reason for liking the book is that it does not shy away from the complexity of organisational change by offering simplistic models, but instead recognises that change requires leadership and leadership is neither simple nor easy.

Kotter observes that the reason we now have such a problem with change is because our organisations lack leadership skills. This has come about because throughout the twentieth century entrepreneurs have created thousands and thousands of organisations. But for each entrepreneur or business builder, we needed hundreds of managers to run their ever-growing enterprises. As a result, companies and universities developed management programmes to meet the demand and management skills became for primary focus for employee development.

While the pace of change is relatively slow, a single leader with lots of managers can be an effective way to run an organisation. But as the pace of change accelerates, the quantity of decisions and the speed at which decisions need to be taken causes the process to become overloaded and fail. As Kotter puts it “In a faster-moving world, this ponderous linear activity breaks down. It is too slow. It is not well enough informed with real-time information.”

Kotter believes that the pace of change affecting organisations has already gone beyond the point at which predominantly managerially oriented organisations can survive. He writes: “The twenty-first century employee will need to know more about leadership. Without these skills, dynamic adaptive enterprises are not possible.”

The rest of the book sets out to first explain why change programmes frequently fail and secondly to look at the sensible and practical steps organisations can take to succeed. However, for me, the reason that I think it is one of the most important works on the subject of change is because it dismisses the notion that change is yet another process to be managed, it is an everyday reality that needs to be led.

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