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Oh no! That 8-step change framework is back again

I see from the Harvard site that John Kotter’s old 8 step ‘framework for big change‘ is trending again.leading-change

I do love retired Prof Kotter.

But, I simply don’t understand why this framework keeps re-emerging, as it’s so old-fashioned and doesn’t fit what organizational change is really about or how it really works today.

The framework’s assumptions of who are ‘the do-ers’ (people at ‘the top’) and who are the ‘done to’ (everyone else) always were flawed as they were based on this half-truth: 

“Human nature being what it is, fundamental change is often resisted mightily by the people it most affects: those in the trenches of the business.”

In fact, the need for fundamental change is usually recognized first by the people doing the job – those in the trenches who are in touch with the reality of the market.

Any messages they try to send inwards and upwards through a management system that is designed for one way control and communication – top down – about the need to change gets ignored and nothing happens.

So the people in the trenches get cynical and have to create ‘work arounds’ – unofficial ways of getting the job done that they are often not allowed to report upwards (as these methods ‘aren’t authorised’. So you create a culture of dishonesty) to produce the results asked of them, deviating from whatever the official process is.

This was acknowledged years ago as the ‘hidden factory’ syndrome.

In large organizations in particular, there is no mechanism for aggregating front-line intelligence about the need for change and pushing it upwards so those who make decisions about change can do so in good time and with close to the market information.

‘Resistance to needed change’ happens just as much, if not more, within the management system as ‘in the trenches’.

The resistance to change that causes the problem is the absence of people listening ‘at the top’, starting directly with the direct bosses of those ‘in the trenches’, because those bosses are looking upwards – or ‘listening’ upwards – for instruction, not listening to what is being said ‘from below’.Chess

This internal friction preventing change messages from moving up from the market and into the business via employees is where the most significant resistance to change lives.

Showing no trust in people to change the business themselves, in real-time, as market needs change, or in anticipation of changes in market need, is the 50% of the ‘resistance to change’ equation this 8-step formula ignores.

And this resistance from ‘above’ is far more significant than resistance ‘from below’, particularly today, when markets are even more fast-moving than they were in 1995, when Prof Kotter first came out with this stuff.

Leaders at the top are part of a system in which they operate, NOT deus ex machina outside of the machine making changes upon it, leading to ‘resistance to change’ from those you are trying to change.

That’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how people change. You want others to change? Change yourself first. Everyone knows that now. It’s almost become a cliche. But leaders don’t do it. 

There is a misunderstanding in this 8-step model/framework of where power resides; where it comes from. It assume there is a power to change from above if you just get it right. There isn’t.

There is no understanding in this model, and there never was, that the power driving change comes from an ever-shifting market and that organizations need to be structured to be driven by that power so they change organically.

Not structured so that change efforts are driven by vision or decree from those furthest away from the dynamics of power (the market), who have least day-to-day contact with the shifting market and aren’t immersed in it, one customer at a time, like those in the trenches are.Megaphone2

There is also no understanding in this model of how to change how smart people behave – the psychology of how and why we change how we behave. The 8 step formula is a recipe for groupthink and for shouting down anyone who says “But…” (by seeing them as resisters of change) and forcing compliance from all but the bravest. Who don’t last long and leave.

Ooh, how quickly what starts as a post becomes a rant. But there is so much deeper, complex thinking about how change works now that is more ‘real’ than the old 8 steps stuff.

Dave Snowden’s work on emergence, complexity theory, systems thinking and so on … it doesn’t come wrapped in eight neat steps and therefore doesn’t get the attention from leaders and managers who like to think there are a series of neat steps; things they can ‘do’ to the rest of the organization to overcome the rest of the organization’s resistance to change.

The constant re-emergence of this linear thinking just makes me go “Aw, haven’t we learnt anything in the past twenty years? We’re still going back to this????”


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