The Kotter change model: 8 steps to accelerating change

Kotter change model

The Kotter change model is reviewed in the video below (from This is perhaps one of the best known models for organisational change.

Kotter’s change model aims to give organisations a road map to follow when they seek to bring about major change.

The difficulty I have with the model is that, if applied rigidly, it is too linear and fails to account for the complexity of the modern organisational environment. Although, it is fair to say, that Kotter seeks to apply the model to more complex environments in his book Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World.

Nevertheless, its focus on vision and communications is powerful and whilst, in many ways, the eight steps in Kotter’s change model are not easy to accomplish, it does provide a framework around which organisations can direct their efforts.

Kotter’s 8 Stages of Change


John P Kotter’s 8 stage process for creating major change is one of the most widely recognised models for change management. John Kotter is a retired Harvard Business School professor of leadership. Kotter is also a co-founder of Kotter International based in Seattle and Boston.

Kotter’s article about the eight stage process for leading change was originally published in the spring of 1995 in the Harvard Business Review. This article previewed Kotter’s 1996 book: “Leading Change”.

Professor Kotter has proven over his years of research that following the eight step process for leading change will help organisations succeed in an ever-changing world.

In general the model consists of three main phases. These phases cover eight individual steps. They are sometimes also called stages – hence the model is widely known as Kotter’s eight stage, or eight step change model.

The three phases of change

In phase one, which covers the first three steps, it is about creating a climate for change and getting a shared understanding of the difficult assignment which lies ahead of the organisation.

In Phase two, which covers the steps four through six, it is about engaging the employees in the process and enabling the employees to affect change in the organisation.

In Phase three, which covers the last two steps of the eight change steps, it is about implementing and sustaining change in the organisation now.

We shall review each of the eight steps individually. We start at the top of the model and then we go down through the model one step at a time. Each step is necessary when you want to transform your organisation.

To give your transformation effort the best chance of succeeding you have to take the right actions at each stage and avoid common pitfalls.

The Kotter Change Model Step 1

The first step is establishing a sense of urgency. Actions needed in this stage:

  • you have to examine the market and competition for potential crises and untapped opportunities,
  • you have to convince at least 75% of your managers that the status quo is more dangerous than the unknown pitfalls.

In this stage executives sometimes underestimate how hard it can be to drive people out of their comfort zones. Management can also become paralysed by risks. A transformation of the organisation requires leadership from executives.

The Kotter Change Model Step 2

Step 2 is forming a powerful guiding coalition. Actions needed in this stage:

  • you have to assemble a group with a shared commitment and enough power to lead the change effort,
  • you also have to encourage them to work as a team outside the normal hierarchy.

A major transformation generally demands activity outside of formal boundaries.

Expectations and protocol pitfalls in this stage:

  • no prior experience in teamwork at the top level of the organisation,
  • top management appoints team leadership to a person without enough power.

No matter how capable or dedicated the members of the team are, groups without strong line leadership never achieve the power that is required to change the organisation.

The Kotter Change Model Step 3

Step 3 is creating a vision.

Actions needed in this stage:

  • the team has to create a vision to direct the change effort,
  • the team also has to develop strategies for the realisation of the vision

Pitfalls in this stage include presenting a vision that’s too complicated or too vague to be communicated in five minutes. If you can’t communicate the vision to someone in five minutes or less – and get a reaction that signifies both understanding and interest – you are not done.

The Kotter Change Model Step 4

Step 4 is communicating the vision.

Actions needed in this stage:

  • Use every possible way to communicate the new vision and strategies for achieving it. The vision will be referred to in emails, in meetings in presentations. it will be communicated anywhere and everywhere.
  • teach new behaviours by example of the guiding coalition. For example, if the focus of the vision is on the environment, the management has to drive more environmentally friendly cars.

Executives have to walk the talk professionally and privately.

Pitfalls in this stage:

  • the guiding coalition is under communicating the vision. A single memo announcing the
    transformation or even a series of speeches by the CEO and the executive team are never enough. Actions speak louder than words.
  • nothing undermines a communication program more quickly than inconsistent actions by leadership.

The Kotter Change Model Step 5

Step five is empowering others to act on the vision.

Actions needed in this stage:

  • The guiding coalition has to remove or alter systems or structures undermining the vision. So, if an organisation that claims to want to be customer focused finds its structures
    fragment resources and responsibilities for products and services, they have to change this to unleash people to do their best work.
  • The Coalition has to encourage risk-taking and non-traditional ideas, activities and actions. Realigning incentives and performance appraisals to reflect the change vision, can have a
    profound effect on the ability to accomplish the change vision.

Pitfalls in this stage:

  • failing to remove powerful individuals who resist the change effort. They may not actively undermine the effort but they are simply not wired to go along with what the change requires.

The Kotter Change Model Step 6

Step 6 is planning for and creating short-term wins.
Actions needed in this stage:

  • the guiding coalition must define and engineer visible performance improvements. Running a change effort without attention to short-term performance is extremely risky for leaders.
  • in the middle of a long-term change effort short-term wins are essential. Getting these wins helps ensure the overall change initiatives success. Leaders must recognise and
    reward employees contributing to those improvements.

Pitfalls in this stage:

  • failing to score successes early enough
  • management leaving short-term successes up to chance

Short-term wins rarely simply happen.

The Kotter Change Model Step 7

Step 7 is consolidating improvements and producing still more change.

Actions needed in this stage:

  • leaders must use in increased credibility from early wins to change systems, structures and policies undermining the vision,
  • they also have to hire promote and develop dedicated employees who can help them implement the vision.
  • leaders also have to reinvigorate the change process with new projects and change agents.

Pitfalls in this stage:

  • While celebrating a win is fine, declaring the war won can be catastrophic. Until changes sink deeply into a company’s culture, a process that can take five to ten years, new approaches are fragile and subject to regression.

Ironically it is often a combination of change initiators and change resistors that creates the premature victory celebration. In their enthusiasm over a clear sign of progress, the initiators go overboard allowing resistors to convince troops that the war has been won.

The useful changes that have been introduced slowly disappear if nobody is pushing the change forward.

The Kotter Change Model Step 8

Step 8 is institutionalising new approaches. Actions needed in this stage:

  • leaders must articulate connections between new behaviours and corporate success. They
    approaches, behaviours and attitudes have helped improve performance. Change sticks when it becomes the way we do things around here.

Pitfalls in this stage:

  • Management is not creating new social norms and shared values consistent with changes and they are promoting people into leadership positions who don’t personify the new approach.
Custom graphic - Kotter change model

Kotter’s 8 steps to accelerate change in practice

Now let’s look an example of the use of the eight steps model with a manufacturer of high pressure valves.

The founder of the company, who was an ingenious engineer died a long time ago. Today the company is a major player in the industry and they are still living by the mantra of the founder: we deliver solutions before the customer knows he has a problem.

In recent years the company has had problems. The company has lost market share and they have made losses in the last two years. The new CEO wants to address the problem by using Kotter’s eight step process.

To solve the problem the new CEO has established a sense of urgency. His message is clear – the existence of the company is threatened. To back this message he also makes it public in the Start magazine that the company has lost an important customer.

In step two, the CEO forms a powerful guiding coalition with himself as leader. He knows he has to assemble 20 to 50 important persons from the organisation with shared commitment and enough power to lead the change effort.

He knows that a major transformation generally demands activity outside of formal boundaries, expectations and protocol. Therefore he hires consultants from Kotter international and invites a key customer to participate in the coalition.

A market survey shows that the company’s brand reputation is high but the products have become too expensive and the products contain too much indifferent functionality.

In step 3, the guiding coalition has to creative vision that is relatively easy to communicate and appeals to both the internal and external stakeholders. The coalition wants to change the old mantra into a vision centralised around the customer.

The new vision is: we invent jointly with our lead customers. the team also has to develop strategies for the realisation of the vision.

In step four the guiding coalition has to communicate the vision to the employees of the organisation and external stakeholders. All the members of the coalition have to communicate the same message anywhere and everywhere.

The CEO and other executives have to visit customers and participate in fairs where customers come. Instead of tech fairs, they also have to prioritise the marketing and sales department. Executives have to walk the talk externally as well as internally.

In step 5 the coalition encourages executives as well as employees from different departments to get in contact with customers.

The top management changes the rules about contacting and working together with customers. Before, it was only the key Account Manager who had contact with the customer. Now the rules are changed, employees from the logistics department, R&D department and other departments are encouraged to contact their counterparty in the customer organisation.

The company is shifting from key account management to diamond collaboration with the customer. The role of the key account manager is totally changed. Management will have to layoff those who resist the change vision.

In Step six the guiding coalition has to announce some short-term wins.

The CEO goes public with a new product developed jointly with one of the lead customers. The product development phase only took 12 months which is twice as fast as normal. The materials of the new product are recyclable and the production costs are cut by 30%. This is due to the fact that all departments have optimised together in partnership with the customer.

The CEO publicly recognises and rewards the employees who have contributed to the success with the strategy of developing new products together with the customer.

In step 7 the guiding coalition must use the increased credibility from the win in step 6 to change other conditions undermining the vision.

Their next battle to win is to integrate their value chain with lead customers and share big data. Some executives do not want this openness with the customers. They will try to stall further developments in this direction. Therefore, the guiding coalition has to reinvigorate the change process again and again. They have to win a lot of battles before the war is won.

In the eighth and last step, leaders must create new social norms and shared values consistent with the changes.

They have to promote people into leadership positions who personify the new approach. They must want to work together with customers. They have to see them as allies.

The company has reached the vision when leaders and employees do not behave differently in terms of whether it is a colleague or a partner from a customer they are working together with.

The war is won. Now it is time for a new vision and a new beginning at step 1.

Criticisms of the 8 Step Model

Let us now consider a criticism of the Kotter change model:

  • It is a rigid approach in which you can only take one step at a time. Some scholars argue that you can have 8 different speeds in an organisation the vision may be the same but the changes happen at different speeds in different parts of the organisation.
  • Some steps are not relevant in some contexts. A simple example is the replacement of major software used to process operations or the change of equipment on a manufacturing line. In these cases, the changes are often irreversible and so step 7 and 8 might not be relevant.
  • Dealing with difficulties during change management. Planning changes, according to Kotter’s framework should limit those obstacles, but the model is not detailed enough to provide help in all scenarios.
  • Kotter’s time frame is measured in years. Short-term wins are within 12 to 24 months. The circumstances may have changed radically before all eight steps have been completed.

In conclusion, the model gives you an overview of the different steps in a change process in an organisation. It shows there is a logical path through a change process and what conditions to consider during that process.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the key principles of Kotter’s 8-step change model?

Kotter’s 8-step change model is a framework for organisational change, based on John Kotter’s research. It consists of the following steps: create a sense of urgency, form a powerful coalition, create a vision for change, communicate the vision, remove obstacles, create short-term wins, build on the change, and anchor the change in corporate culture. Each step is essential for effectively managing and sustaining change within an organisation.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of using Kotter’s 8-step change model?

Some benefits of using Kotter’s change model include its systematic approach, clarity of steps, and focus on both the emotional and rational aspects of change. It also helps ensure that change is sustainable by anchoring it in the organization’s culture.

However, potential drawbacks include the model’s linear nature, which may not suit all organisations, and the need for adaptability when dealing with complex change. Additionally, some aspects of Kotter’s model may require tailoring for specific industries or organisational cultures.

Are there any specific industries where Kotter’s change model is most effective?

Kotter’s 8-step change model is applicable across various industries, as the principles of change management are generally universal.

Organisations with complex systems and structures, particularly those undergoing transformational change, may benefit the most from Kotter’s approach. However, the complex nature of such organisations may make it hard to apply the Kotter model.

Can you provide a real-life example of the successful implementation of Kotter’s 8-step change model?

One example of successful implementation of Kotter’s 8-step change model is the IBM’s organizational turnaround led by CEO Lou Gerstner. Gerstner used Kotter’s principles to reverse the company’s decline by creating a sense of urgency, forming a coalition with key leaders, establishing a vision for change, and implementing the other steps necessary to transform IBM into a market leader.

How does Kotter’s change model compare to other organisational change models?

Kotter’s 8-step change model focuses on both rational and emotional aspects of change and emphasizes the importance of anchoring change in organisational culture.

Other popular change models, such as Lewin’s three-step model, also address these components but may differ in their approach. For example, Lewin’s model emphasises unfreezing, changing, and refreezing, while Kotter’s model focuses on a more dynamic, step-by-step process. Ultimately, the choice of change model depends on the organisation’s needs and the nature of the change.

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