Our interview with Kotter in August focused on change and why people find it so challenging. This interview is about creating lasting transformation, as reflected in Kotter’s New York Times bestsellers Our Iceberg is Melting, A Sense of Urgency, and Buy-In.
Q: What do you say to people and organizations that feel immobilized in a complex, fast-moving world? Where is a good place to begin the process of change and lasting transformation?
A: The process of change for any organization begins with getting their senior leadership aligned around a big opportunity. If top leadership sees their organization’s large-scale opportunity and not just the problems clearly, they will be able to establish goals more clearly and more effectively communicate them throughout the organization. The objective here is to develop a sense of urgency in the organization by engaging the hearts and minds of the people in the organization. Change starts with an aligned sense of urgency and continues through an 8-Step Process before the organization achieves the results.
The Book: Our Iceberg Is Melting
Q : I have to agree with Michael Dimelow’s description of Our Iceberg is Melting as “a stroke of sheer genius.” How did you conceive this clever storyline of a penguin colony facing potential doom, with characters we all recognize as ourselves and real people in our lives/work?
A: For that I have to give the credit to my co-author, Holger Rathgeber. Holger developed a corporate training program based on Leading Change (which has penguins on its cover) that included the storyline of a penguin colony. I began collaborating with him on that project and from that collaboration; we came up with the idea of turning it into a book. We both believed in the power of stories as a teaching tool and as a way to influence behavior.
Q: What do you think some of the creative applications of Our Iceberg Is Melting (like the administrative assistant) prove about the power of fables and storytelling in addressing the serious challenges in organizations?
A : I think they prove that stories have a way of inspiring people — both individuals and large groups — to take action. They also give people a way to deal with serious, sometimes uncomfortable issues in a way that diffuses tension and instead rallies people to change for the better. One of the great advantages of stories is that they can be effective in different cultures and countries. Managers across the world have told me how they use Iceberg in their organizations. A No-No in Germany may not act exactly be the same as one in Singapore, or the United States, but they have the same impact. The story helps people in various cultures recognize unproductive and undermining behavior, and inspires them to create ways (like the administrative assistant in Urgency did) to stop them in their tracks.
Q: At the end of Our Iceberg Is Melting, you remind readers of “The Eight Step Process for Leading Change,” then go on to talk about the role of thinking and feeling. Discuss how those lead to significant changes in behavior.
A . The only way to spur real behavioral change is by tapping into the heads and hearts of people. Presenting data in a logical manner is not enough — this can change the way people think, which is a good start, but you also need to change the way people feel. You have to get people feeling good about a change or negative emotions like panic and pessimism can set in. These can quickly convince people that the change is too hard, or likely to fail, so they might as well give up on it. Think about a situation when you knew in your head you should do something, but you did not feel excited about it, so you put it off. Then you might have told yourself, well, it was not THAT important anyway, or said; well now it is too late so it will not be worth it. And then days go by and you do not do the task, even if completing it could have had a very positive outcome for you. Now take that example and multiply it across an organization and you can start to see how critical it is to build real urgency from the head and the heart to create real behavior change.
Q: In this book you address how to deal with NoNos, who can destroy the best of initiatives and become powerful barriers to progress. What is it and what key strategies should people employ to neutralize a NoNo?
A: Ignoring NoNos is a recipe for disaster. You must identify who the NoNos are, accept that they have the power to wreak havoc on your plans, and work to neutralize them.
There are three key ways of doing so: distract them by sending them on assignments far away from where urgency is needed; get rid of them; or find socially acceptable ways of immobilizing them, helping others to see how the naysayers were blocking the company’s progress.
The Book: A Sense of Urgency
Q: The great challenge after incredible accomplishments is to maintain A Sense of Urgency, the title of one of your most recent books. What is THE threat to sustaining urgency?
A: Complacency is the number one enemy of urgency. When people start to become satisfied with the status quo or tell themselves, “we have made some changes, we must be in better shape now,” you are in trouble. People who are complacent do not look for new opportunities nor are they watching for hazards coming their way — even ones that are clear as day to outsiders. They might see problems, but they never have anything to do with them — it is always in another division or because of someone else. These behaviors kill urgency because they sap the energy and desire to move and win, NOW, that an organization needs to keep successfully transforming.
As I have written before, the world is moving faster and faster from episodic to continuous change, where urgency is something that will need to be sustained all the time. It is no longer enough to raise urgency every few years, make a big change, and then slide back into “the way things were.” Organizations are realizing that the only way to compete is to be constantly adapting and evolving all the time, and the only way to do this is to, as you say; create an unrelenting sense of true urgency.
Q: Since complacency is so dangerous, how do we recognize it in ourselves and others?
A : The first thing I would recommend is to look at what people do — not what they say. When complacency is prevalent, people will keep on doing things that maintain the status quo. That could be continuing to work short hours when there is pressing work to be done, or focusing on a product that is fast becoming obsolete, simply because that is what they have always done. Now turn that same lens on yourself: Are you talking the talk, but not walking the walk? Are you saying that you are going to change now, but then failing to take the actions necessary to do that?
On the Kotter International website we have a helpful set of questions you can ask yourself (and ask about your organization) that will help you determine if complacency is running high. If you answer “yes” to a majority of these, you have to introduce some more urgency-raising activities.
Q: How do we increase a TRUE sense of urgency?
A: You have to pursue a compelling strategy, be relentless in your drive to win, make progress each day–and celebrate it–and continuously purge activities that add minimal value. I call it the “look-move-lead-now” approach, where you put your urgency into action and do everything you can to demonstrate the importance of seizing an opportunity–immediately. And the key is to always focus on both the head and the heart.
Q: What is the value of the “bring the outside in” approach?
A: Without an eye towards the outside, complacency tends to set in. Many organizations are internally oriented, so, by bringing the outside in, leaders can demonstrate the true size of the hazards their organization must surpass and the opportunities it can seize, and begin building the urgency required to do so.
Q: “The ultimate solution to the problem of urgency dropping after success is to create the right culture. This is especially true as we move from a world in which change is mostly episodic to a world in which change is continuous.” How do leaders drive urgency into the culture?
A : If the core of the old culture is not incompatible with the new change vision, you have to find ways to graft the new practices created by the change effort (including a constant sense of urgency) into the old culture. You also have to root out the parts of it that are inconsistent with the new vision. One way leaders can do this is by acknowledging how parts of the old culture benefited the organization in the past and that they understand it can be difficult to let go of them. Then point to new evidence that proves the new parts of the culture are reaping big rewards for the organization. Keep communicating these messages to employees over and over.
If the core of the culture IS inconsistent with the new values created by the change effort, leaders face a more difficult task. In these cases, evidence that the new values and methods are working is not enough. Leaders may need to change up key people, ensure new employees aren’t being hired according to the old culture values, only promote people who appreciate and embody the new ones, including succession candidates.
The Book: Buy-In
Q: When one has a good idea that is needed badly and needed now, what are the main patterns of attacks leveled by naysayers?
A: Lorne and I found that most common attacks are based on one or more of four strategies that people employ: raising anxieties so that a thoughtful examination of a challenge is very difficult; creating a deadly delay to slow communication so that sufficient buy-in cannot be achieved before a critical date; muddling conversation with irrelevant facts, convoluted logic or many alternatives so that it is impossible to have clear dialog to build buy-in; and making the idea proposer simply look silly.
In Buy-In we describe twenty-four sorts of questions and concerns that are commonly used in different settings and all are potentially dangerous because they can be devilishly difficult to overcome. Each of these will fit into the four strategies of attack I just outlined. Some examples include, “Your proposal leaves too many questions unanswered–what about this and that...,” “Sounds like [something most people dislike] to me!” and “Aha! You cannot deny this [worrisome thing]!”
Q: In part II of Buy-In, after the Centerville story, you talk about “The Method.” What is this “counterintuitive strategy” for saving your good idea that cuts through all the idea attacks?
A: The general method for gaining buy-in is simple to summarize. First, you need to gain the attention of the people by allowing the naysayers to attack your ideas. Let them use multiple strategies to challenge your ideas and even your credibility. Then win the support of the relevant people in your group by using commonsense and clear responses to these attacks, and always show respect while responding. Monitor the people whose buy-in you need for success, not just the few attackers–this will help you identify your supporters and maintain your momentum. The last part of the method is to prepare for each of these steps in advance of your moment in the spotlight.
Q: The first part of the method is especially counterintuitive — engaging with the “Pompus Meanis” and “Divertus Attentis” verbose arguments, data, and seeming logic with the exact opposite. Please explain how this helps advance a good idea.
A: All of us have had great ideas shot down by these kinds of clever naysayers, and while it is intuitive to want to keep these potential opponents out of the discussion, especially the sneakiest attackers, you should not. Letting them in and encouraging them to shoot at your ideas is a key part of winning buy-in because these sparks of conflict will create attention. By allowing naysayers to challenge you, you will encourage the discussion that draws attention to your idea and gives you the opportunity to capture an audience, let them hear you and for them to buy-in to your idea in a serious way.
ABOUT JOHN KOTTER:
John P. Kotter is internationally known and widely regarded as the foremost speaker on the topics of Leadership and Change. His is the premier voice on how the best organizations actually achieve successful transformations. The Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership, Emeritus at the Harvard Business School and a graduate of MIT and Harvard, Kotter’s vast experience and knowledge on successful change and leadership have been proven time and again. Most recently, Kotter has been involved in the creation and co-founding of Kotter International, a leadership organization that helps Global 5000 company leaders develop the practical skills and implementation methodologies required to lead change in a complex, large- scale business environment.
When speaking to groups, Kotter draws on the history of recent successes and failures in the business world. He explores the new rules of leadership and the importance of lifelong learning in the post-corporate world. Kotter has authored 18 books, twelve of them bestsellers. His works have been printed in over 150 foreign language editions and total sales exceed three million copies. His latest book, Buy- In, focuses on the problems associated with getting others engaged and committed to good ideas and provides solutions for dealing with attacks on your good ideas. His books are in the top 1% of sales on Amazon.com. For information about how to order his books (CLICK HERE).