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Organizational Change Can Be Successful – Part 1

Organizational Change Can Be Successful
small__2953814622For anyone who’s been in the working world for some time knows, organizational change is never easy. For those who haven’t, you will soon find out that despite the brightest minds leading your future organizations, most of the changes you will be involved with will fail. In fact, according to a 2013 study by a leading global professional services company, Towers Watson, 75% of change efforts in your organization will fail to have lasting impact. Despite these dismal findings, armed with knowledge and a little bit of courage you and your organization can swing the odds of success in your favor.

In this eight part series, I’ll provide guidance on a proven process created by John Kotter, an internationally recognized authority on leadership and change. A Harvard Business School faculty member for over 30 years, Kotter has authored 18 different books on the topic of change. In 1996, Kotter released the book entitled Leading Change that introduced his eight step change process. This seminal work, that has become the foundation for successful change at many organizations around the globe, will be the basis for the information that is to follow in this blog series. Along the way we’ll encounter examples of how others have successfully utilized this process in their own change efforts, hopefully providing you with the courage to become an instrument of change in your own organization. With that in mind, let’s get started with step 1 – increasing urgency.

Step 1 – Increase Urgency

One may ask – of all the components of change – why is urgency the first step in the process? Perhaps noted author, professor, and management consultant Peter Drucker said it best “But unless it [change] is seen as the task of the organization to lead change, then the organization will not survive”. Without a commit to change, at all levels in the organization, the change effort and the organization cannot survive. This is especially true in the age we live in where advancements in technology and global pressures keep organizations in a state of constant change. Therefore the greatest challenge organizational leaders will face is getting the organization to not only accept change but become ambassadors of change within the company.

Complacency is one of the bigger threats when developing a change culture within your organization. Author Dan Cohen notes that “battling organizational complacency will likely be the most pressing challenge you face in increasing urgency around a change initiative” (Cohen, 2005, p. 21).  Thankfully, Cohen provides us with guidance on increasing urgency and limiting complacency by  considering complacency indicators and how to counter act them. Examples include:

Indicator: No obvious, specific, and compelling rationale for the change effort that is shared with the entire organization.
Counter action: Highlight the precarious position the organization may be in. Expose or remind managers of significant competitive weaknesses of the organization. Communicate about errors instead of hiding them. Reinforce the risks of settling for the status quo.

Indicator: Overall performance standards that are too low.
Counter action: Set stretch targets that cannot be reached with a business as usual attitude. Benchmark targets against competitors.

Indicator: Your culture avoids confrontation and kills the messenger.
Counter action: Force honest discussions in management meetings. Ensure that action items and decisions are recorded and assigned to specific individuals.

Indicator: Too much “happy talk” from upper management on past successes.
Counter action: Celebrate successes but only as a way to bring focus to the challenges and changes ahead. Utilize transparency by encouraging open discussions about organizational challenges. Don’t let people skim over tough issues in management meetings but ensure conversations are solutions-focused and not gripe-based (Cohen, 2005, p. 16 -20).

Successful implementation of Kotter’s first step, increasing urgency, results in an organization that is motivated to contribute to the effort at significantly higher levels than at organizations where change efforts regularly fail. With motivated employees comes volunteerism and a new challenge emerges as change leaders must decide how the appropriate teams will be built to support, guide and execute the change. I’ll cover this new challenge in our next blog entry – Step 2 – Building Guiding Teams.


Cohen, D. (2005). The heart of change field guide. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.


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