Skip to main content

Change Models – Kotter

In a globalised world shaped by social, political and environmental issues, organisations and teams need to be able to respond to change more frequently and efficiently than ever before. 

This article will review some of the basic models of organisational change management and outline useful tools that can be employed when aiding organisations or individuals during transition periods.

7 Simple Principles for Effective Change Management

  1. Before starting organisational change, ask yourself: What do we want to achieve with this change, why, and how will we know that the change has been achieved? Who is affected by this change, and how will they react to it? How much of this change can we achieve ourselves, and what parts of the change do we need help with? 
  2. Plan the change you are trying to achieve by deciding on appropriate, achievable and measurable stages.
  3. Any form of change may make people feel unsettled and they may try to obstruct or resist it. Therefore, during organisational change, it is crucial to involve the entire team into the process. Involving and informing people creates opportunities for them to participate in planning and implementing the changes in addition to generating a sense of ownership amongst those affected.
  4. Communication is key to effective change management. Ensure that the people affected by the change agree with, or at least understand, the need for change, have a chance to decide how the change will be managed and be involved in its planning and implementation. Use face-to-face communication to handle sensitive aspects of organisational change management (see Mehrabian's research on conveying meaning and understanding)
  5. Change is a process that requires time. This is important to keep in mind as "quick change" prevents proper consultation and involvement, which are both crucial components of successful change management.
  6. Changes can vary in their complexity which has implications for how it is managed. For instance, more complex changes, refer to the process of project management, whilst less complex changes may require less effort.
  7. For organisational change that entails new actions, objectives and processes for a group or team of people, use workshops to achieve understanding, involvement, plans, measurable aims, actions and commitment. 

Who is Responsible for Managing Organisational Change?

Usually, responsibility for managing change is with the management and executives of the organisation - they should facilitate and enable the change in a way that employees can cope with it. 

The manager has a responsibility to understand the situation from an objective standpoint (to 'step back', be non-judgemental) followed by helping people understand reasons, aims and ways of responding positively according to employees' own situations and capabilities.

Models for Successful Change Management

John P Kotter: 'Eight Steps to Successful Change'

John P Kotter (1947) is a Harvard Business School professor, leading thinker and author on organisational change management. 

Kotter's highly regarded books 'Leading Change' (1995) and the follow-up 'The Heart Of Change' (2002) describe a helpful model for understanding and managing change. 

Each stage acknowledges a key principle identified by Kotter relating to people's response and approach to change, in which people see, feel and then change. A more detailed outline of each of these steps can be found here.

Kotter's Eight-Step Change Model can be summarised as:

  1. Increase urgency - Inspire people to move, make objectives real and relevant.
  2. Build the guiding team - Get the right people in place with the right emotional commitment, and the right mix of skills and levels.
  3. Get the vision right - Get the team to establish a simple vision and strategy, focus on emotional and creative aspects necessary to drive service and efficiency.
  4. Communicate for buy-in - Involve as many people as possible, communicate the essentials in a simple manner and appeal and respond to people's needs
  5. Empower action - Remove obstacles, enable constructive feedback and lots of support from leaders - reward and recognise progress and achievements.
  6. Create short-term wins - Set aims that are easy to achieve - in bite-size chunks. Manageable numbers of initiatives. Finish current stages before starting new ones.
  7. Don't let up - Foster and encourage determination and persistence - ongoing change - encourage ongoing progress reporting - highlight achieved and future milestones.
  8. Make change stick - Reinforce the value of successful change via recruitment, promotion, new change leaders. Weave change into culture.

Related to Kotter's ideas, and particularly helpful in understanding the pressures of change on people, and people's reactions to change, see a detailed interpretation of the personal change process in John Fisher's model of the process of personal change.

Nudge Theory

Nudge theory is a highly innovative and powerful change-management methodology which emerged from academic study in the early 2000s. 

It was defined, named, and popularised by US behavioural economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their 2008 book 'Nudge - Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness'.

Much of the theory is based on the (2002 Nobel prize-winning) work on human thinking of Israeli-US psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, dating back to the 1970s, which popularised the concept of 'heuristics'.


  • Heuristics, in the context of Nudge theory, refer to the tendency of people to think emotionally and instinctively, rather than rationally and logically, based on a variety of influences.
  • Heuristic thinking reduces the mental effort required during decision making. Therefore, they are sometimes referred to as mental shortcuts.
  • There are different types of heuristics, such as the availability heuristic or the representative heuristic.

Nudge Theory is now used by governments to shift the thinking and behaviour of very large groups and potentially entire societies. This shows how it can be a powerful tool in aiding periods of transition and change in an organisational context. How?

  • By understanding heuristics, we can understand why and how people think, make decisions, and behave.
  • We can apply these principles to 'nudge' people's thinking and decisions, by using indirect interventions ('designing helpful new choices'), rather than conventional enforced/imposed change.

    Which Factors Drive Change?

    Business Development-Driven Change

    Business development includes everything involved with the quality of the business or the organisation. This requires establishing the business development aims, and then formulating a strategy, which would comprise some or all of the following methods of development:

      • Sales development
      • New product development
      • New market development
      • Business organisation, shape, structure and processes development (eg, outsourcing, e-business, etc)
      • Tools, equipment, plant, logistics and supply-chain development
      • People, management and communications (capabilities and training) development
      • Strategic partnerships and distribution routes development
      • International development
      • Acquisitions and disposals

    Fast-Changing Environments

    Planning, implementing and managing change in a fast-changing environment has increasingly become the status quo for most organisations.

    Ever-changing environments such as these require dynamic processes, people, systems and culture. This is not only relevant for managing change successfully but also for effectively optimising an organisation's response to market opportunities and threats as a means of staying competitive.

    Key elements for success:

    • Plan long-term broadly - a sound strategic vision, not a specific detailed plan (the latter is impossible to predict reliably). Detailed five-year plans are out of date two weeks after they are written.
    • Establish forums and communicating methods to enable immediate review and decision-making. 
    • Empower people to make decisions at a local operating level - delegate responsibility and power as much as possible (or at least encourage people to make recommendations that can be quickly approved).
    • Remove (as far as is possible) from strategic change and approval processes and teams (or circumvent) any ultra-cautious, ultra-autocratic or compulsively-interfering executives. Autocracy and interference are the biggest obstacles to establishing a successful and sustainable dynamic culture and capability.
    • Encourage, enable and develop capable people to be active in other areas of the organisation via 'virtual teams' and 'matrix management'.
    • Scrutinise and optimise ICT (information and communications technology) systems to enable effective information management and key activity team-working.
    • Use workshops as a vehicle to review priorities, agree on broad medium-to-long-term vision and aims, and agree on short term action plans and implementation methods and accountabilities.
    • Adjust recruitment, training and development to accelerate the development of people who contribute positively to a culture of empowered dynamism.
    • Apply Nudge theory as a means of understanding potential hidden influential factors on people's thinking.

    What Challenges Can Arise in Change Management? 

    The most prominent challenges organisations and teams may face during periods of change and transition can arise from narratives such as "We've always done it this way" or "Why do we need to make changes when everything is working fine?"

    How do you overcome these challenges?

    It can be helpful to use analogies to assist managers and other staff to look at change in a more detached way. 

    For instance, it may be useful to look at the following BusinessBalls resources for team meetings, presentations, one-to-one counselling or self-reminders:

    1. On the Stories section look at 'Murphy's Plough' (negative thinking = obstacle to change) and 'We've always done it that way' (not questioning the need for change). Both are good aids for understanding and explaining why people find it difficult to change assumptions, conditioned thinking, habit or routine.
    2. Aesop's Fables section has other short and beautifully simple analogies useful for illustrating aspects of causing or dealing with change, for example (all on the Aesop's Fables section):

          • The Crow and the Pitcher (change being provoked by pressure or necessity)
          • The North Wind and the Sun (gentle persuasion rather than force)
          • The Lion and The Ass (enforced change - might is right)
          • The Crab and his Mother (lead by example and evidence - or you'll not change people)
          • The Miller, his Son and the Ass (no single change is likely to please everyone - everyone wants something different)
          • The Oak and the Reeds (the need for tolerance - changer or 'changees')
          • The Rich Man and the Tanner, (time softens change - given time people get used to things)
          • The Ass and the Mule (agree to reasonable change now or you can risk far worse enforced change in the future)

    Related Materials

    • See also the modern principles which underpin successful change.
    • Refer also to Psychological Contract theory,  which helps explain the complex relationship between an organisation and its employees.
    • See Nudge theory - an immensely powerful methodology for understanding how and why people think the way that they do, and make the decisions they make, and also for shifting people's thinking and decisions, and thereby the behaviours of groups, potentially on a very large scale.
    • See also the excellent free decision-making template, designed by Sharon Drew Morgen, with facilitative questions for personal and organisational innovation and change.
    • Dawn Stanley's excellent RISE Personal Change Model, a simple helpful 'how-to' framework for personal change, is also a very useful reference model for change of many other types.
    • To understand more about people's personalities, and how different people react differently to change, see the personality styles section.


    John P Kotter's 'Eight Steps to Successful Change' are John Kotter 1995-2002

    © Alan Chapman 2005-2014